Today on The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about ideas, side projects, and businesses.

Steli and Hiten have been in business a long time. It is fair to say that they’ve had a long history of failed side projects, and each failed business idea has taught them valuable business lessons and motivated them to continue trying.

In this week’s episode, Steli and Hiten share some business ideas they’ve tried in the past that failed and talk about why they failed.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic

00:33 Hiten talks about one of his failed side projects.

01:35 The reason why this topic was chosen.

01:55 A ridiculous ideas Steli tried in the past

03:26 A ridiculous idea Hiten tried in the past

04:17 Another of Steli’s idea that failed.

07:47 An embarrassing idea of Hiten that failed.

08:38 Steli shares another failed idea of his.

10:18 Hiten shares another of his failed ideas.

3 Key Points:

  • Just because you’ve succeeded in the past doesn’t mean you’ll succeed in future
  • I think existed so didn’t need to exist.
  • The one thing we never asked ourselves was how to get customers for this.


Steli Efti: Hey everybody, this is Steli Efti.



Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah and today on The Startup Chat we’re going to talk about ideas, side projects, maybe even businesses to some extent depending on what we get into going back and forth on ones that failed. I’m going to talk about one of my failed ones which was … I think we experienced and talked about a little bit on the show which was I tried to make some shirts and I tried to sell them.



Steli Efti: Oh, yeah. Yeah.



Hiten Shah: Yeah, and I messed up big time. And it was about unicorns and something about unicorns dying and somewhere in my closet I have a pile of those shirts somewhere or some box somewhere in the garage, I don’t remember. It had a unicorn and a sad unicorn and it said something like, “Unicorns die too” or something like that. First of all, my grammar on the copy of the shirt was way off. Second of all, nobody wants those kind of shirts. I think it’s because they’re very negative not positive. I don’t even know why I did it. I think I just wanted to try something, something completely different and it failed. I still have the shirts so it obviously failed. I was trying to sell them.



Steli Efti: Yeah, I remember that. I remember you with a shirt on my balcony recording a Startup Chat episode.



Hiten Shah: That’s right.



Steli Efti: Yeah, the reason why we wanted to do this episode is just again, a lot of times you see people that seem successful and are running companies that work well but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a lot of failure and it doesn’t mean that just because you’ve had success in the past every project and every company you work on or every idea, it’s going to succeed in the future. That’s not how it works, right? So just shedding a light on that. All right, so I’m going to start with the smaller more ridiculous ideas and then maybe we’ll work up to some more side projects or real startup things that I worked on that failed. But something ridiculous that I just thought of as you were talking about the T-shirt was that one winter maybe seven years or so ago we tried to sell Christmas trees. It was even during a time we were running ElasticSales and one of our teammates in November was like, “You know what? What would be really cool is to have a really nice website that’s really modern where people in the Bay Area can order a Christmas tree.” I don’t even remember, he had some kind of unique angle and we started just laughing about the ridiculousness of trying to sell Christmas trees. But then when we searched for all of the places, like all the websites were super updated from 1992 or something. He was like, “Yeah, we could get this upvoted on Hacker News and make it sort of funny. Maybe it will have some startup theme. Startup theme names for all the different trees.” I think the whole idea spun out of control. He actually together with me, I did a little bit of the copy and he put together the website. We posted it on Hacker News and I think we sold 13 or 14 Christmas trees.



Hiten Shah: Cool.



Steli Efti: You know, I don’t even know how we got the Christmas trees to those people but that was it. I think the goal that we had set was to sell like 100 or 200 of these trees and it didn’t quite work out as successful as that. It was just a weird, funny thing to do and definitely one of the weirder projects that I ever worked on.



Hiten Shah: That’s really cool. Mine, before we built Crazy Egg and then eventually KISSmetrics we built a product called and it was just a stat counter for websites. It was very similar to a product that still exists today called and I think existed so didn’t need to exist. That was the basic reason why it didn’t work.



Steli Efti: All right, so next thing that didn’t work out, this was a bigger project but something that almost nobody that knows me … Only my inner circle of friends know that this ever existed. There was a project that I was working on at the same time that I started working on this charity thing that ultimately ended up becoming ElasticSales and Close that was called Viva TV. It was basically QVC for the web, right? So what we did … It was during the heyday of Groupon and I was looking at all these Groupon clones making a shit ton of money and I came up with this idea of saying, “You know what? This online shopping, like a live show that shows products could work really well with this concept of having something heavily discounted for a very short period of time.” If we stream something online, we would have a lot more analytics than they have on TV. The reason why shopping TV is such a big thing is that they know how many calls they get and they know how many people tune in so based on that they have dynamic programming. They might show a certain product for much longer than they had originally intended because it’s much more popular so they can just adjust their programming based on data. I was like, “Well, online you have a shit ton more data than what they can have just by pure calls. This could be a really big thing.” So for, I don’t know, a period of three or four months we actually, I would source products by just cold call, just doing online research and calling different vendors and different brands and negotiating deals with them. We found a studio in LA that we could rent by the hour. We found a host, and she was actually pretty amazing, in LA by putting a Craigslist post up and people had to go record a YouTube video or something like that of them presenting some random product that we came up with for like five minutes or something. Then we picked a few of them, interviewed them and picked a host. What we would do is once I had enough products that I could present in the show, drive to LA from San Francisco with a friend of mine, rent that studio, get that host lady to come. We would set up a big monitor and I would use Skype to produce her basically during the live show. We would start livestreaming. We had a website where you could livestream video, people could live chat and the product would update, like a product purchase box would update on the right. We would purchase the audience live and in real time over Facebook ads. So we would run Facebook ads while the show was going on. People would click and they would land on the livestream of the show.



Hiten Shah: Cool.



Steli Efti: The crazy thing is the main audience was female and most of the product … our best selling product was a belt, like a really cool kind of hippie belt that Julia Roberts was wearing in Eat, Pray, Love. That was a month before the movie came out. It was a really expensive, $100 belt. I think we sold 10,000 worth of those belts.



Hiten Shah: Cool.



Steli Efti: But ultimately, ultimately because we couldn’t program the show regularly, right? Sometimes it would take a week, sometimes take three weeks and because we had to purchase the audience live and get them randomly whenever we were doing the show it was kind of a break even. We lost a little bit of money on it, but we could never really build momentum. It was a lot of fucking work in this small operation of me being San Francisco calling vendors all day long trying to get the programming together and then just driving up for a weekend and shooting the show in the middle of the week in LA and then driving back. So trying to bootstrap that thing was just a lot of work although it was very fun at the end of the day. Ultimately, another idea was taking off that I was working on so I just abandoned that. But when I tell people that I was running an online shopping show for women for three or four months they’re usually surprised.



Hiten Shah: That is a pretty good one. I’m going to talk about an embarrassing one. So we had a podcast advertising network we tried to start on the side when we were running a consulting business back in the day. It was called Fruitcast. The idea was that we would partner with podcasters. I think it was like 2007, 2006, 2008, something around that range. It was not where podcasting is today 10 years later basically. We tried to build a podcast advertising network. We even launched it on TechCrunch. Micheal Errington said that we were charging more than radio.



Steli Efti: Okay.



Hiten Shah: And we didn’t know that. We didn’t know that.



Steli Efti: Of course.



Hiten Shah: So that’s why it’s failed. That’s why it failed.



Steli Efti: Oh, man. I never heard that one. So that’s awesome.



Hiten Shah: Yeah.



Steli Efti: All right, what’s another … Oh, here’s another good one that nobody knows. This is like, I don’t know, this is maybe 15 years ago. We had started … In Germany we started a online hypnosis paid phone hotline.



Hiten Shah: Cool.



Steli Efti: All right? It was called TeleTrance. The idea was that every day you could call this number and you could listen to like a three, four minute little meditative hypnosis trance session that was live recorded that morning to relax, to refresh, to whatever. Live every day would be a different theme and you would have to pay, I don’t know what it was, let’s say two or three bucks call in to listen to that live hypnosis show. We spent a lot of time coming up with a name and brand. We had a really cool website. We spent a lot of time back then, this is 15 years ago in Germany to even figure out how to have a paid phone line and where to rent it and what kind of contracts we had to negotiate. Then we spent a good amount of time for me to record a bunch of these. I was composing the music for the background, recording the hypnosis sessions. The one thing we never asked ourselves is how to get customers for this, right? How are we going to advertise this to anybody? That was a question that was not entertained at all. That was ultimately one of many reasons why that idea failed pretty quickly.



Hiten Shah: Wow. That’s funny. Let’s see, failure. Let me see if I have another one. A lot of failures we just didn’t pursue enough.



Steli Efti: Yeah.



Hiten Shah: So I had one called Serph, S-E-R-P-H. We built a kind of [Techo Ratty] . Techno Ratty let you type in a keyword and you would see all of the blog posts about the keyword.



Steli Efti: Oh, yeah. Jesus, Techno Ratty, I totally forgot, yes.



Hiten Shah: That was before Google really was picking up blogs for whatever reason in a big way. So Techo Ratty used to exist to we build something similar except we let you search Flickr and a lot of other services. The way we did that is just by using RSS which was Real Simple Syndication but … Or Really Simply Syndication or something like that. But RSS doesn’t exist much anymore because Google had a big RSS reader and they turned it off. But anyway, a lot of the services would provide RSS feeds for every search. So we could just pull it in and show the top 10 or 20 or 30 results. So we had listings and you just put … You had a box, typed in a keyword and you’d get these listings. They were kind of combined and it was very crude, but it worked. It was nice and looked pretty. It probably could have been a thing. I think we might have launched that as well and had it on TechCrunch or something. It could have been a thing but we just never doubled down on it and spent more energy and effort on it beyond the kind of, if you want to call it that, a MVP or did any research or try to understand why people like it, why they don’t. Some people were using it. It was kind of neat. I think that was just a failure of … I can’t tell you why it failed because we just stopped working on it.



Steli Efti: I mean, I feel like we could do this for a very long time. I feel like as we go along I remember all these weird things that I tried or didn’t try or thought about or worked on for a little bit. But let’s wrap this up in the spirit of keeping it short.



Hiten Shah: Yeah.



Steli Efti: You know, we want to hear your failures. We want to hear your weird side projects you worked on, the things that you tried that didn’t work. I feel like overall we’re sharing too little of that and we’re just too much editing what we share with the world is just the things that really, really work. Also, we always love to hear from you. You can always get in touch with us directly., Just reach out to us and share your stories. We’ll always love to hear it. If you work on anything related to selling T-shirts or building a hypnosis hotline or anything on the lines of these ideas and you want to share that and brainstorm around odd learnings or anything like that just let us know.



Hiten Shah: Later.