start: November 2018
end: April 2019
guac was a project that I worked on over the summer of 2018 with my mates Nikhil Ramesh and Colin Foo. We wanted to make a math tutoring app that would provide on demand help to high school students at a much lower price point than a one on one session with a private tutor. Similar apps were already popular in Asia - for example SnapAsk in South East Asia and ZuoYeBang in China - and we felt that this trend would inevitably reach Australia as well. So, we decided to give it a shot ourselves.
Development went relatively smoothly. We made guac for native iOS using xcode and swift for the app's frontend and firebase for the backend. We managed payments through PayPal, and Nikhil built a nice webpage for us.
Behind the scenes image of app development.
Why is Nikhil holding a sweet modified Nerf blaster? Why is he wearing a top from his primary school? Why did he cut off the ankle sleeves of his Uniqlo track pants? These are all good questions, and I ask them to myself every day.
The part that we underestimated with this project was getting our app into the hands of users. Getting users is hard, especially when you're trying to sell a paid digital education product to teenagers. Retrospectively, we spent too long dreaming up cool features and trying to implement them (I personally spent a month pre-release coding up a LaTeX math keyboard) and not enough time getting our product out to real users. If we were to do this again, we would smash out a bare bones minimum viable product in a month or less and spend the rest of the time communicating with users and trying to tweak the app to fit their real needs.
We started this project with big ambitions. We wanted to make tutoring accessible to all, regardless of location or income level; to make math feel far more approachable for struggling students; and to give these students the freedom to learn on their own while still having access to proper guidance and help. We really believed in our work, felt that we could make a difference, and thought that we could succeed - but of course, life doesn't work that way, and to a certain extent this was just the naive hope of young first time app developers. We ended up with a small handful of users, but not enough for us to justify prioritising our project over coursework once uni started up again in March. We had some great ideas for what we could do to improve our service in the future, but ultimately we decided to shutter the app in order to move onwards and upwards.
So what would we do differently next time? I think I personally learned a few important things from this experience:
First, ideas are nothing and users are everything. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's easy to think of something that sounds nice - something that would work only in the ideal world you've dreamt up for yourself - and to decide you've hit the jackpot. The real test comes when you put what you've created in front of real people who will then decide whether or not to pay for your product with their own hard earned money. There's no such thing as thinking up of a great idea, coding it up, and then having people instantly flock to you in reverence. Good products are shaped in the market, not in your head. First make something that is maximally simple while still retaining your basic premise and principles, release it, and go from there.
Second, move fast and fail fast. Your little startup idea is born on its deathbed. By default it is dead, and every day that you spend messing around without increasing momentum is a day that it inches closer towards being so once again. Work as hard as you possibly can to get past the first step outlined above to make sure that you have something worth pursuing. Your time is worth more than anything, so if you're going to fail and learn something, do it in as little time as possible.
Third, think very carefully about what the barriers of entry are for your idea. By this I mean clear obstacles that explain exactly why what you've dreamt up doesn't already exist. The reason won't be that no one's thought of it, or that the people smart enough to work on it have simply chosen not to. There's a lot of smart people out there, and they're all just as hungry for success as you are. You can almost guarantee that any app idea that relies on mature technologies has already been tried, so if it doesn't already exist then there's a good reason why. Focus on your competitive advantages - on developing novel ideas that rely on resources that other people won't have access to - and maybe you'll have a better shot.