If you followed me back in the day while I was working on my failed Lean Designs startup, it probably would have been hard to tell that things were headed in the wrong direction. Even for me, it took a long time to realize how many problems there were with the idea and execution.
I’ve thought about that a lot since then. It’s really hard to observe something and evaluate how things are going based on activity alone. Activity is necessary and important, but only if it’s applied effectively.
How can you tell whether activity is effective? Looking ahead, it’s difficult unless you have a deep understanding of the problem and the possible solutions. For example, it might have seemed like setting up an LLC and having a logo designed for Lean Designs were important tasks, but really they weren’t. If you’ve built an online business before you might realize that, but if not it would be tempting to look at the completion of those tasks and think I was making meaningful progress.
Looking backwards is a bit easier. Compare your current results for some goal with where you were a month ago, six months ago, a year ago. Have you made progress in whatever metric that matters? If your goal is to build and grow a SaaS startup, have you launched? What do your growth and retention rates look like? If you’re trying to lose weight, are you? If you’re trying to write more often, have you been?
It’s tempting to want to explain why when the results aren’t there. In the short run, there can be a lot of valid reasons why things aren’t going well. Bad luck, illness, etc etc. But the further back in time you go, the harder it becomes to attribute the lack of results to these types of factors.
If you look at where you are today with a goal and your results haven’t changed from six months ago despite lots of activity, it’s worth taking a step back and trying to identify the root cause. Ask why a bunch of times. Maybe there is a valid reason, but in my experience it’s often something more fundamental. Maybe I’m not as motivated by the goal as I thought which is causing me not to put the effort into it that is really required. Like with Lean Designs, maybe my entire approach is wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t have been working on Lean Designs in the first place.
And to be clear I’m not saying the ends justify the means. Just that results are important when goal-setting and the longer you go without meaningful results, the greater the odds are that something is fundamentally wrong with the goals or the execution.
Put another way, if I’ve been working on something for a while and the results aren’t there, I’m probably doing something wrong and need to re-evaluate my approach.
This might be obvious, but it took me a long time to really internalize it so I wanted to share in case it helps anyone.
In 2010, inspired by the success of the mockup tool Balsamiq, I started working on a competitor called jMockups. My original goal was basically to build a Balsamiq clone, but instead of it being downloadable software it would be web-based. I named it after jQuery.
After a while I realized that competing head-on with Balsamiq was a bad idea so I pivoted to building a high fidelity mockup tool – one that would create mockups that looked like real websites instead of sketches – and I renamed the project Lean Designs. Instead of competing with Balsamiq, I’d be competing with tools like Photoshop that a lot of designers use to design sites before building them. And as an added bonus, Lean Designs would also export your high fidelity mockup to HTML and CSS, saving you from having to manually code up the design when you were finished. I was pretty excited by it.
Here’s an early demo of Lean Designs:
As you might have guessed from the title of this post, things did not go well.
I never wound up writing about what went wrong – mostly out of embarrassment – but reading about my mistakes might save of some of you some heartache with your own projects.
First and foremost, Lean Designs didn’t solve a clear pain point for a specific group of users.If you had asked me back then who Lean Designs’s audience was, I would have said something like: it’s for developers who want to design a website without writing HTML/CSS, it’s for designers to create a high fidelity mockup of their websites before coding it, and it’s for everyday people who want to create a simple static website but don’t want to code 😱.
These are three very different usecases and Lean Designs didn’t solve any of them well. For example, for developers and everyday people who want to create a website, having a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) web design tool where every element is absolutely positioned makes it extremely hard to create a well-designed site. I touted on Lean Designs’s homepage how easy it was to create beautiful websites with it, but almost everything created with it looked terrible.
If you asked me which of those use cases was my focus, I probably would have said Lean Designs was a Photoshop replacement for designers to create high fidelity website mockups. But… I am not a designer. And I’ve never used Photoshop to create high fidelity mockups. I read online about how many designers use it, but I had no expertise in the problem I was trying to solve. And if Lean Designs was truly for designers to create high fidelity mockups, why did I build an export to HTML/CSS feature that would never be used by these designers in a production website?
One way to mitigate this is to do customer development: to get on the phone and meet face to face with people in this market to learn about their real problems. I never spoke with anyone in Lean Designs’s target audience to verify my assumptions. This is ironic given that Lean Designs is named after the Lean Startup movement, a big part of which is to do customer development to avoid making incorrect assumptions.
I also didn’t research any of my competitors. I rationalized it by saying to myself that I didn’t want to be influenced by what was currently on the market. To this day I’m still learning about competitors that existed back then that I had no idea about.
I formed jMockups LLC to add an element of seriousness to the project even before the site had launched. That’s $500/year to operate in Massachusettes.
I paid hundreds of dollars for a logo that I never wound up using because after I bought it I realized it resembled a swastika:
When I later renamed the site to Lean Designs, I filed a trademark for it with the help of a local lawyer. He also helped write its Terms of Service. 💸
With all of these administrative things taken care of, I proceeded to spend months building the first version of the product.
I thought I was being innovate by blindly following my vision for the product, but I was being extremely naive.
The first version was completely free. I wanted feedback – any feedback – and thought that the best way to do that was to get as many people using it as possible. Feedback from free users can be very misleading; what you really need is feedback from people who will pay.
Eventually I transitioned to a freemium model where you could create a limited number of mockups for free or unlimited for $9 per month. This was a tool that I was aiming at professionals and I charged the same amount as a burrito at Chipotle.
The only marketing I did for it was to create a blog where I only posted about feature updates. I should have been writing – or paying someone to write – content that would be interesting to my target audience (whoever that was).
And for the few people that did use it and did pay, I eagerly implemented almost every feature request in the hope that each one would turn the tide on my failing product.
I was in a mastermind group at the time, but we spent too much time talking about features and not whether the Lean Designs was viable in the first place.
I didn’t pay close attention to metrics nor did I look at what people were actually creating with the site.
Finally, I spent way too much time trying to turn what I knew to be a flop into a successful startup. It’s hard to know sometimes whether an idea is bad or whether you just need to keep pushing, but in Lean Design’s case I kept at it way too long.
After about a year and a half and hundreds of hours spend toiling away on nights and weekends, I stopped accepting new users, put up a notice that it would be shut down in a few months, then killed it.
The upside of my experience with Lean Designs is that I picked up a lot of new technical skills and learned a lot about what not to do which I later applied to Lean Domain Search and other side projects.
Was it worth it? Could I have learned these things by reading blog posts like this one when I was deciding whether to work on Lean Designs? It’s hard to say. I’d like to think so. Maybe some things just have to be learned the hard way.
On that note, if anyone reading finds themselves working on a project with similar issues and is looking for feedback, don’t hesitate to drop me an email.