After being in Sydney for 3 months, back in 2013, I found myself participating in my first hackathon overseas, the Startup Weekend. The goal was not only to build a prototype, but to prove you had a viable business model. I have a lot to say about hackathons in Australia, and even more on how you cannot implement the lean startup methods over a weekend. I’ll come back to that with some proper blog posts.

Lean Startup

During these two intense days, I was introduce to the “Lean Startup” concept, and some of its strategies and methods. The Lean Startup is, for me, a compilation of advices, tips and tricks that aim to move quickly from idea to product, in contrast with a strict and rigorous program.

It would be indeed foolish to think that there’s a way to run through a static set of sequential steps to build every projects. It is important to accept that an idea is cheap, and it is very likely that over people already had it or will. Actually, the inherent fact that an idea is not tangible makes it remarkably impossible to valorise.

Minimum viable product

A project idea requires usually the creation of a product, taking the shape of physical devices, and/or software. SaaS (known as well as cloud solution) and apps have been the most common outcome of any ideas for the past 20 years.

The first difficulty is therefore moving away from a very approximative idea (80% of the ideas out there are defined at 20%, even though it seems crystal clear for the “owner”).

Lean Startup Canvas And that’s where the Lean Startup is already super interesting: it states that your focus should be 1, maybe 2, features that are core (understand necessary) to provide value to your target audience. To define those features, you are invited to fill in the lean startup canvas. That’s a critical part on your lean startup journey, and you don’t want to miss it.

Failing fast

Assuming the product is now well defined, it is now a matter of building it asap, keeping any cost as low as possible, and still deliver a great experience.

Time is key. Often, the keys players of the project are fantastic workers, that have set aside a potential amazing career in an existing corporation. Although they are about to acquire a unique and grand experience, in both case of success or failure, it remains that they are likely to earn $0 for a while.

For that reason and few others, you must provoque the success or the failure of your project, and every single day is actually expensive. For that, there is one and only one way: try your product out there whenever it is possible. Until your audience tries it, you cannot be confident that you are delivering value. Obviously, even out there, you will need to audit your users, and track the usage of your product. Metrics is indeed the only reliable way to interpret how much your product fit.

Applying lean startup to ridesharing in Australia

Backseat ride accepted

How does this relate to Backseat ? Backseat was the first ride sharing solution in Sydney, closely followed by UberX, the 30th April 2014. And one of the reason why it was the first, is because Alexis D. and I met in October 2013. After 3 months, and the implication of Steven F. and James G., our private beta was rolling out.

During approximatively 6 weeks, we’ve been trying the product in the suburbs of Sydney, and validating the business model, along with our marketing strategy. Note that we were working particularly hard, while only one of us was working full time on it, starting January. I must say it’s been intense to me, to create the full solution, plus having to support with the nights of real rides. But as said earlier, it was necessary to figure quickly what was possible to do. And against all odds, Backseat, the business, the product, and the go to market strategy, were working.

Early April 2014, we were finally in the app store, after 4 weeks of waiting for approval (seriously, apple…), as well as in the Play Store (Android), and ready to kick ass. Unfortunately, the regulation was not in our favor. While we were delivering a negligible amount of rides, UberX started. We knew that they were privately testing their ride sharing service in Sydney, I must say that retrospectively, their call to make the service public has been catastrophic to us. They indeed triggered a huge PR, attracting a lot of attention.

We obviously knew that our service was pushing the limits, legally speaking, having a system based on donations to work around the constraints. And we were delusional to think that we’d get backed by some Australian business angel. While we were looking for some funding, UberX was blooming, ignoring the different states warning. Plus, another startup tried to enter the space too, with the advantage of having heavy funding from Rocket Internet.

End of June, after having exploring all the funding options down under, we had to admit that unless a real angel came, we’d have to give it up. The technical cost were close to none, less than $100 per month, thanks to some clever hack/customisation I have done. However we couldn’t operate because drivers don’t get fed with promises and sweat equity.

Backseat was never officially declared over, since it has never really officially been declared started. Yet it was the end of a tough and wonderful experience. I still keep the code warm, and see some new downloads and signup every week. I love launching my app now and then, request a ride, although I know for certain that my experience will stop with “No drivers available”, and I’ll press “No worries”.

That was my first article about Backseat, a high level presentation. Next up is a technical in depth post about the solution and the “hacks” I came up with, notably to avoid the google map API call number limitation.