Exambuff

Launched: ~ January 2009

Shut Down: ~ January 2011

Founder: Tim Ruffles

Funding: none

Exambuff was an exam preparation service where  one could “hand-write an answer to an example exam question from your course, upload it to a PhD student, and they’d comment on it and tell you where you were going wrong”. Unfortunately, it never gained any traction, nor did it ever make any sales. Around two years after starting, Exambuff shut down. However, Exambuff isn’t totally defunct – founder Tim Ruffles has open-sourced the project.

Given that ExamBuff never made a sale, it could probably be described as a failed project more than a business startup. But as a case study, it does provide some insight into a project idea that never quite found a market.

Why Exambuff Failed

Founder Tim Ruffles wrote a post-mortem and pins the failure down to three main factors:

  1. Not understanding customers – this was the big one he identified (and I entirely agree). Tim only tested his assumptions with a Facebook survey, but never bothered to talk to actual or potential users.
  2. Harmful ramifications of knowing how to code  – he was a technical guy who wanted to code and he essentially re-invented the wheel by creating a complex app from scratch. To be fair, I don’t think this was a proximate cause for the startup not succeeding, but rather a waste of his time.
  3. Market or industry forces – the university exam market is seasonal (exam time) and he was targetting the universities themselves, and institutional market. Again, this probably wouldn’t have broken the startup if he was more flexible in his target market (e.g. one suggestion on the Hacker News discussion thread was to target the legal niche, or alternatively build an open platform for scanned and annotated documents).

Ultimately, there wasn’t a paying market for ExamBuff, probably due to a number of separate reasons, for example: the target demographic (students) generally aren’t interested in paying such services, it’s hard to know how many students study for essay-based exams by actually writing practice essays, students can solicit third-party reviews for free from friends or at local student centres, etc.

Moreover, the site design was mediocre at best, with the dubious choice of a canary yellow theme. It was also noted that the demo was lacking, not for the handling or technical aspects, but for the actual content of the example essay. The comments were in mildly unclear handwriting and were stock, banal comments and writing advice that would have been at home in a primary school setting. Were I the customer, I would have felt it was a total waste of money.

Lessons Learned

The main lesson from ExamBuff is to test your assumptions and constantly seek feedback on your product. A common theme in many failed startups is the lack of a product-market fit. This may take some time to develop but it is clearly crucial to success. Startups need to continue to test their theories in the market and find the product that fills a need or desire that someone is willing to pay for. This may mean experimenting in many different directions to find the right fit. Now that it’s open source, perhaps someone could use the source code for ExamBuff and discover a market for it.

EventVue

Launched: May 2007

Shut Down: February 2010

Founders: Rob Johnson, Josh Fraser

Funding: $256k

EventVue started off as a private social network for conferences helping attendees network for more effectively. They pivoted twice, once to focus on a widget that would drive attendees to conferences and then again to turn EventVue into an application that promised to be “the best way experience and discuss shared events in realtime” (essentially realtime conversations for events).

Several months after the second, EventVue decided to shut down after not seeing enough traction from their new product. The founders wrote a blog post post-morten accompanying their shutdown announcement with a short history of EventVue and the mistakes they made.

Why EventVue Failed

Given that EventVue underwent two major pivots, it could be argued that the company actually failed three times. In any case, one of the clear reasons why the company failed was because it lacked product-market fit. As co-founder Josh Fraser put it in a follow up discussion, EventVue was “a vitamin instead of a painkiller. Conference organizers typically liked our product but none of them said they needed it.  It didn’t make their lives easier, make them more money or cut any of their expenses — it was just “nice to have”.

EventVue started off trying to make the conference experience better. But they found out that conference organisers didn’t really care about the quality of the experience, let alone pay for someone to improve it. As one customer bluntly put it, “If I wanted to improve the conference experience I would buy everyone steak dinners. I don’t care about the conference experience. I care about selling tickets. What can you do to help me do that?”

So EventVue pivoted in the most logical manner – find ways of marketing and driving attendees to conferences in order to cash in on affiliate payments. They did this with the EventVue Discover widget, which would let people know who else was coming to a conference. But it had the  unintended consequence of actually losing money for customers. To quote Josh, “One statistic that is true for almost every event: 80% of ticket sales come in during the last 2 weeks.  This meant that showing the list of people attending the event actually had the opposite effect than intended. Instead of seeing their friends that were attending, they saw that no one had registered yet and assumed the event was a dud.”

I suppose by this stage EventVue had no concrete idea how it was going to make money since its first forays had failed and its assumptions more or less proven to be wrong. They tried pivoting again, but eventually ran out of steam and money.

EventVue’s post-mortem discusses the other mistakes they made, but none were really as significant as not finding the right product-market fit. In other words, EventVue hadn’t built something enough people wanted to pay for. The other mistakes include:

  1. Not testing their assumptions beforehand about whether or not there was a market of paying customers for their product, and not reacting until it was too late
  2. Too much early focus on trying to sell a weak product without investing the time to improve it
  3. Not committing fully to the product pivot (for the Discover widget)
  4. Dubious business model – EventVue tried to pursue an enterprise sales model with a “non-recurring, small price”
  5. Too much push, not enough pull – EventVue wasn’t configured to allow anyone to come and use the product (i.e. no “self-serve” option)
  6. It’s also implied that they made bad hiring decisions

Lessons Learned

The overall lesson from EventVue is to solve a problem that people will pay money for, or perhaps on a more general level simply – build a product that people will pay for. Obviously this is easier said than done, but coupled with this key point are three more specific lessons:

  1. Test your assumptions and test them quickly – EventVue built a product then went out on the road trying to sell it without testing their assumptions, tweaking the product and creating something that enough people would actually pay for. By the time they realised it wasn’t going to work and pivoted, it was already probably too late.
  2. Keep iterating – until you have a product that has good market fit, or until you become convinced that it won’t work, or worse, run out of money.
  3. Understanding the customer’s needs – in EventVue’s case, their customers were the conference organisers. But EventVue started out by trying to make a product to meet the needs of the conference attendees (i.e. the customers of their customers). But they soon found out that the needs of the organisers and attendees were not necessarily aligned.

Lastly, co-founder Josh Fraser has some specific advice for startups in the social networking for events space in this follow-up post.