GUESTPOST – The co-founder of the crowdfunding-for-apps-startup SellanApp, Milan van den Bovenkamp, speaks out about the lessons learned after he hit bankruptcy.
I jumped on the bandwagon with someone else’s idea, after 3 years of fiercely working on making my coworking community successful. While almost burning out 21 years of age, just after finishing my bachelor degree.
Starting SellanApp together with a co-founder was not the best idea, it was a great idea and the best decision at the time. I never regret that, because now I have deep practical knowledge in (crowd)funding, investors, building a team, doing partnerships, online communities, etc. Next to that:
Now I understand technology in such a way I am endlessly excited how it is changing the world and improving people’s lives.
Every day I am reminded of SellanApp, in e-mails, in people talking to me, or universities asking me to share insights to their students. I feel that I owe my family and friends an explanation, investing their hard earned time and money in me and the idea I worked for. Thank you so much for granting me this opportunity to learn!
I can say the partnership I had with Aernoud Dekker was not healthy, for which we were both to blame. There were times I felt empowered, there were times I felt crippled. Co-founding is all about mutual respect, about being in there together. My partner wanted to be the founder, and I was the co-founder, it’s just two letters but those two letters meant the world in SellanApp.
Things were (almost) always discussed with me, but there was never a healthy brainstorm or discussion. In a company where a business model is proven, good business partners can work together and complement each other.
When you have a new model, you need great partners having healthy discussions, every day. They enable each other and good design happens. There’s one person that likes to bounce ideas back and forth to make it better on the go, and the other person that wants to plan, backed up by research and all on a silver platter. Expectation levels of a discussion needs to be in sync.
Put different people together defining success in a different way, it’s a recipe for disaster. Don’t get me wrong, Aernoud is a brilliant man with great ideas and the most impressive experience in business! But our visions were not aligned, and we took too long to found that out.
For example, when we were hiring. It’s best to put an opening up, have lots of conversations with people and compare and discuss the multitude of people. We just hired people on the spot after one or two conversations, just after meeting them. They were good people, but were they great for SellanApp? We could not answer this question because we did not talk to enough people. In our top time we had 12 people working for us (6 in house and 6 freelance), all these people were hired ‘on the spot’. It takes time to find great people for your idea and vision, but it’s so worth it.
A month before bankruptcy, my partner told me we were close of being forced to quit, rather than we had a decision. It was devastating for me, because he told me things were steady and we actually had a shot of getting some funding to grow further.
I was on a planned RV roadtrip with my dad and sister, when I got a text message from my partner he wanted to pull the plug. After that news, at the start of my holiday of a week I was all hands on deck. All the ideas I had written down over the years I turned into a solid plan. I spent hours and hours every day to find the way to make this all work. I came back jaded, my only week of holiday (for me meaning being offline and not producing, just consuming) was ruined, especially because he then finally showed me the real numbers.
By the time I saw my chance to step in… it was too late. We were in too much trouble, the red numbers overshadowed the means to change or start over.
Make sure you have a complete overview of the financials, not only a glimpse… ask the right questions by having clearer KPIs and make sure you maintain them.
Autumn 2013, one year before bankruptcy, we went to New York and Dublin, pitching SellanApp to investors, media and partners on The Next Web Conference and the Websummit. I was on a crossroad. One way lead to leaving the company because I did not feel I had the grip or the influence to make this venture work. The other road was forcing the management to listen to me, listen to the ideas I had and the plans to broaden the scope of the business model. Basically making a pivot in the model.
My friends and family know what resembles me. I’m not the person to sit back and relax to enjoy the ride, I either design, create, or make the ride possible!
Somehow I found a middle road, which wasn’t leaving or taking control. Leaving was not an option because I don’t like to leave something that I’ve built, and also I don’t like to quit until I’m forced to. I did not take control, forcing the management team (which was only our CEO) to listen to me. That is why I completely lost touch of the company and myself. Because I was not heard in my company, I started initiating all kinds of other projects from the beginning of 2014.
- In January, Taggy (on SellanApp, to confirm how SellanApp did or did not work)
- On a hackathon in April, we hacked Wildcard together with 5 friends
- In the summer I started freelancing again (basically community growth hacking for all kinds of companies).
Be a business partner (part of the management team) or an employee (listen to CEOs vision), not both. Step in when it feels you need to take control, if that does not work, leave.
The business model
Crowdfunding was an exciting space in 2011, Kickstarter was on the rise, they did not yet had their million dollar project. Apps were booming, there was a time everyone downloaded and bought apps, and not everyone actually had an app idea.
A lot of people that were engaged with technology saw apps as tools to make the world better and earn a little money. It was a pre-Flappy Bird, post-Angry Bird time. iPhone ruled approximately 40 percent of the smartphone business. A small community of people could make something great, which meant the world and turned a lot of heads. In the coming years that changed to the major boom of people and small businesses all wanting their own apps, a lot of app generators started to emerge, where companies launched apps for the sake of having an app. You needed to have either but loads of money, or a great designed and executed app.
Times changed, but SellanApp did not change accordingly. Over time I talked to thousands (potential) users. I came to the conclusion, the way SellanApp worked, apps are merely some funds to find a developer, not passionate teams working on something great. App ideas need contributions from wizards, nerds and experts all around that love the vision and end goal. The model was not built around that, it was built around everyone could make an app on SellanApp. But people without a solid vision started to use it, and the great producers on the platform could not run another campaign to improve their app.
I felt our users were not really put up for a fight, everyone could put their ideas up, and wait till it became a success. SellanApp was a passive aggressive way of making applications possible. Next to that, I talked with many smart people, nifty nerds, business people, marketeers, my ideal users, and they wouldn’t burn their hands on SellanApp. They rather start their own business and go from there.
There were also competitors emerging. Assembly was a quirky for apps, making apps possible with contributions from the community. And there was Crew (after 1 business model pivot and one 1 name pivot), a place where you could get in touch with the best mobile designers and developers in the world.
If your business model loses focus, change it so it’s focused on a single purpose. Because getting multiple seed investments when you’re not pivoting is unacceptable.
I have learned so much from this adventure, it being not my first failure, but my first move to write about it and share this so you can learn from it as well. SellanApp was a big experiment, we had three seed rounds, but experiments fail. If only we did smaller experiments and improved upon that.
We launched too late, with a massive product (not an MVP at all), we did not grow with the market, we wanted to create the market.
Post bankruptcy I felt relieved, I felt I had the time again to explore my side projects more. Some people said it would be best to find a job again, a real job. I got some seriously cool offers, without actually looking. Meanwhile, one of my favorite side projects was getting some serious eyeballs, I pitched Wildcard to two business savvy friends and they understood where we wanted to go with the idea, we partnered with them and that’s my main focus until today.
Just after bankruptcy I had to leave my house. Since then I am nomading the world leveraging technology. I enjoy being free as a bird blogging about it, and sharing my insights. With my company Online & Kicking, I am making technology come alive, publishing three awesome apps, working with amazing talented people. Sweating for awesome clients like Professional Rebel, Linda Magazine and Philips. I am doing what I love, thanks to my friends and family that supported me and my decisions I could not be happier today and found the strength to write this. If you have any thoughts or feedback, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a tweet to @milann yo!
This post was written by Milan van den Bovenkamp, and originally appeared on Medium and his blog.