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Entrepreneurship

Why I Turned Down $500K, Pissed Off Investors and Shut Down My Startup

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I just did what no startup founder is ever supposed to do.

I gave up.

It wasn’t even one of those glorious “fail fast and fail forward” learning experiences. After seven months of hard work and two weeks before we were to start fundraising, we had a good team, glowing praise from beta users, and over $250k in handshake commitments. But I pulled the plug.

My team and most of my investors are pissed, but I’m sure I did the right thing. At least I think I’m sure.

The business had what I considered to be an unfixable flaw. My investors and my team wanted us to take the funding and figure out how to fix the problem before the money ran out. I’ve started four companies in the past with a mixture of exits and bankruptcies, so I understand that this is what startups are supposed to do, but I just couldn’t do it this time.

This article is in part my explanation to the various stakeholders, in part self-therapy, and in part a call to other founders and investors to let me know what they would have done in my situation.

I began work on ContractBeast, a SaaS-based contract lifecycle management offering, last October. Unless you’ve worked in big IT, you’ve probably never heard of Contract Lifecycle Management or CLM. In brief, CLM covers the authoring, negotiation, execution and storage of both physical and digital contracts with strict access control. It also does things like let you know what contracts are about to expire or automatically renew, and who is responsible for those deals.

CLM is a highly fractured, $7.6 billion global market with over 80 established companies fighting for market share— and that’s not counting the dozens of e-signature startups that have popped up in recent years. Almost all of these companies are clustered in the enterprise space, where sales-cycles are long and top-down, and where revenues are driven by consulting and customization.

It’s a big market begging for disruption. The mid-market of SMBs is grossly underserved and the enterprise market is grossly overpriced. ContractBeast was going to deliver a low-cost SaaS product with no consulting required. We would focus on the mid-market first, and then work our way up to the enterprise.


Building the Beast

Our target users responded positively to the mock-ups, and many excitedly asked when they could start using it. I was on the right track. I spent the next few months working evenings and weekends developing an MVP and getting feedback on features as they were implemented.

I left my job in January so I could work on ContractBeast 70+ hours a week. The rest of the team kept their day jobs. That was fine. It made my final decision easier.

We started private beta in early March, and things looked solid. About 35% of our users continued to use the system at least three times per week after completing registration. The UI needed work, but our users raved about how ContractBeast would save them time and worry in the future.

The team was excited. Our potential investors were excited.

But something was wrong. It seemed trivial at first, but it bothered me. Despite glowing praise, our users were only using ContractBeast to create a small percentage of their total new contracts.

I spent the next two weeks visiting our beta users, looking over their shoulders as they worked, and listening to them explain how they planned on using the product. Pressing them directly on why they were not using ContractBeast to create all their contracts resulted in a lot of feature requests.

Now, talking with customers about features is tricky. Often you receive solid and useful ideas. Occasionally a customer will provide an insight that will change the way you look at your product. But most of the time, customers don’t really want the the features they are asking for. At least not very badly.

When users are unhappy but can’t explain exactly why, they often express that dissatisfaction as a series of tangential, trivial feature requests. We received a lot of ideas like integrating alerts with various messaging platforms, using AI to analyze contract content, and building more sophisticated search features. These aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but they had nothing to do with why they were not using ContractBeast more extensively.

I might write another article on how to tell these tangential feature requests from useful feature requests. Your customers mean well, but implementing these kinds of features will not make your users any happier in the short term. In any event, I was overwhelmingly getting these kinds of tangential, trivial feature requests.

I couldn’t sleep. My users told me they loved the product, and that they planned to use it extensively. But weren’t really using it much, and I had no idea why.

Sipping decaf coffee at 5:00 AM on a cool May morning, I was re-reading forty pages of notes, user feedback, and profanity. The fatal flaw jumped out at me. ContractBeast provided huge gains in accuracy and efficiency, but those gains came after months of use. It didn’t provide a significant immediate benefit.

I was fighting human nature and losing.

Everyone swears they will eat right and exercise, but most don’t. Everyone agrees they need to spend less to be financially secure later, but most won’t. Our users were telling us they would use ContractBeast to achieve those long-term benefits, but most weren’t.

When I looked at the contracts the users were creating, I found most of them were ones in which a particular feature provided a clear and immediate benefit. Usually involving contract review and approval.

Human nature sucks.


Saving the Beast

There were two solutions to this dilemma, we could either change the go-to-market strategy or change the product.

Changing the go-to-market to a top-down, consultative sales approach rather than individual adoption and self-service was an obvious fix. While individuals will rarely make a short-term change to achieve a long-term goal, CIOs have no problem directing employees to do so. It’s a big part of their job.

Unfortunately, top-down sales is much more expensive than content marketing and SEO. Running the numbers convinced me that we would have to raise prices to a point that would push us out of the mid-market and into competition with more established, better funded firms. Since we lacked an overwhelming advantage in this market segment, this was a non-starter.

That left us with the option of finding a way to delight our customers in the short term. We started searching for something that would provide that instant gratification. Almost no SMB views contract management as an urgent problem. Unless we found a way to get people actively using ContractBeast during the free trial, converting them to paying users would be difficult.

We reviewed all of the feature requests we received from our users. Some of them were excellent, but none addressed the problem of providing a significant, consistent and immediate benefit. It would have been pointless to implement them.

Weeks of brainstorming and dozens of hypotheses later, we had nothing. Not a single, plausible way of providing our users with the instant gratification their cerebella so desperately crave.

With no clear path forward, investors ready to wire funds, and the team ready to quit their day jobs, I decided to pull the plug.

Killing The Beast

The team and some of the investors insisted the smart move was to take the funding and pivot our way into solving these problems before the money ran out. That’s the way the game is supposed to be played, and I fully understand why other stakeholders are upset that I am simply taking my ball and going home.

Perhaps we would have figured it out before we ran out of funds, but weeks of brainstorming had not produced a single plausible approach. It would have been different if we had been debating which plan among several to implement or how to shore up specific weaknesses, but we had nothing.

I am not particularly risk-averse, but I pay attention to risk and reward. As an investor, I probably would have told me to take the money and try to make it work. But the risk-reward equation for investors is different than it is for founders.

I was deciding whether this venture was worth committing to another year of 70+ hour weeks. I need a higher level of certainty than investors do because my time is more valuable to me than their money is to them. Investors place bets in a portfolio of companies, but I only have one life.

Eulogy for the Beast

Over the past few weeks the initial shock has worn off, and the other stakeholders have come around. While still a bit disappointed, everyone now agrees that shutting down was the right call.

I also feel a bit better about my decision than I did when I started this article. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in this kind of situation, but if you have I’d love to hear how you handled it.

Cutting your losses is easy to understand intellectually, but gut-wrenchingly difficult to do in practice.

But sometimes it’s best to leave the money on the table.

_______________________________________________________

About the Author

This article was written by Tim Romero, founder of Vanguard K.K. and three other Japanese companies. 

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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Callum Connects

Jace Koh, Founder of U Ventures

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Jace Koh believes cash flow is the lifeblood of your business. Understanding it will enhance your ability to run and manage your business.

What’s your story?
My name is Jace Koh and I am the Founder of U Ventures. I’ve always been inclined towards investment and entrepreneurship. I’ve played a hand in starting businesses across these industries – professional services, cloud integration, software and music. I believe that succeeding in business is tough, but that’s what makes the rewards even sweeter.

What excites you most about your industry?
Everything excites me. These are my beliefs:

  • Why is accounting important?
    The accounting department is the heart. Cash flow is like blood stream, it pumps blood to various parts of the body like cash flow is pumped to various departments and/or functions in a business. It is vital to the life and death of the business.
  • Is accounting boring?
    Accountants are artists too. They paint the numbers the way they want them to be.
  • What makes a good accountant?
    A good accountant can tell you a story about the business by looking at the numbers.
  • Why is budgeting and projection important?
    Accountants are like fortune tellers, they can predict the numbers and if you wish to understand your business and make informed decisions, feel free to speak to our friendly consultants to secure a meeting.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore, and here’s where I want to be.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore is my favourite city. We have great legal systems in place, good security and people with integrity. Most importantly, we have a government that fosters a good environment for doing business. I recently went for a cultural exchange programme in Hong Kong to learn more about their startups. I found out that the Hong Kong government generally only supports local business owners in terms of grants. They’ve recently been more lenient and changed the eligibility to include all businesses that have at least 50% local shareholding. But comparing that to Singapore, the government only requires a 30% local shareholding to obtain government support. In the early days of starting a business, all the support you can get is precious. It’s great that we have a government that understands that.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best time ever to plant a tree was 10 years ago as the tree would have grown so big to provide you with shelter and all. When is the next best time to plant a tree? It is today. Because in 10 years time, the tree would have grown big enough to provide you shelter and all.

Who inspires you?
Jack Ma. His journey to success is one of the most inspiring as it proves that with determination and great foresight, even the poorest can turn their lives around. I personally relate to his story a lot, and this is my favourite quote from him, “If you don’t give up, you still have a chance. Giving up is the greatest failure.”

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I’ve faced multiple rejections throughout my business journey, and recently came across a fact on Jack Ma about how he was once rejected for 32 different jobs. It resonated very deeply and taught me the importance of tenacity, especially during tough times.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I live a life with no regrets. Everything I do, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, happy or sad, and regardless of outcome, it’s a lesson with something to take away.

How do you unwind?
I love to pamper myself through retail therapy and going for spas. I also make a conscious effort to take time off work to have a break outside to unwind as well as to uncloud my mind. This moment of reflection from time to time helps me see more clearly on how I can improve myself.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Taiwan! Good food with no language barriers and the people are great!

Everyone in business should read this book:
I don’t really read books. Mostly, I learn from my daily life and interactions with hundreds of other business owners. To me, people tell the most interesting stories.

Shameless plug for your business:
We’re not just corporate secretaries, we’re “business doctors.”
U Ventures is a Xero certified advisory firm that goes beyond traditional accounting services to provide solutions for your business. You can reach us on our website: http://uventures.com.sg/

How can people connect with you?
Converse to connect. You can reach me via email at [email protected] or alternatively, on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacekoh/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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