Killing a Startup

04:13pm | 06/09/2019
Daniel Tompkins

code business

Make Friends Who Can Code

Together with Sam Piecz, I co-founded a web application for visualizing personal financial data and test-building portfolios. Since 2016, I worked as a designer and— eventually— as the go-to Javascript (JS) coder, for CorrelatePro.

Sam, who'd grown up on the Raspberry Pi, knew Linux and the command-line interface (CLI) like the back of his hand. He showed me how to navigate the terminal; how to use Vim, Tmux and Github; and got me setup with basic devops: in our case, a virtual environment and Docker. Any meaningful work I do on a computer today is because of Sam.

Sam and I met in the Boy Scouts— eventually we both went on to earn the rank of Eagle. When we were younger, Sam and I went to punk, metal, and electronic shows. We started skating together, went to some weird suburban parties, and got into some light-weight trouble.

Sam started (and has since sold) an electronic cigarette "e-liquid" company— Heating Up Vapor. I designed the labels for his bottles, and had started working on some custom packaging. As we got older, however, almost every time we went to "hang out", we were really just sitting on opposite sides of the room coding on our laptops.

Learning Slow

Sam got me started with basic CSS and HTML. He got me a job doing remote work in search engine optimization (SEO). In undergrad, I was getting a degree in architecture. I enrolled in (and dropped out of) a Python course. Sam kept teaching me and encouraging me.

At grad school, I took a course in data visualization. I didn't know any JavaScript, but they were teaching us to learn D3— a JS library for "data-driven documents".

I barely passed, but continued to practice— eventually implementing a few basic visualizations in our application. I recycled some code, a force-directed graph, and improved upon it for adding stocks/cryptos/sectors to a mock portfolio. You could visualize the correlation between those assets (based on distance/density).

Preview of the force-directed graph for visualizing stock correlations.

A force-directed graph clustered nodes (each representing a different ticker or sector) by finding correlations in price increases or decreases over time.

We Actually Built Something

Before we took down CorrelatePro, I'd also implemented a candlestick graph with TechanJS. We had a free plan with a few financial data APIs. Sam setup some internal APIs to move that data (realtime prices, tickers, and historical costs) to the frontend. I took in the data, filtered it and formatted it, and made those dates, times, prices and quantities legible. We had news, a public dashboard for viewing other users' portfolios, and sentiment analysis based on Tweets.

Over time we saw a couple boosts in page-views and click-throughs as Sam continued to submit new pages to Google's Search Console. Working remotely, we used Trello to keep track of tasks and communicated with Slack. We posted to Hacker News and Reddit, built a company Facebook page, and put some effort toward an email marketing campaign. We were both struggling to contribute with school— and lost a third co-founder early on.

After about three years, we still weren't getting enough feedback to iterate. The few users we did have, mostly friends and family, weren't entirely sure how to use it; and the money we'd sunk into server costs was starting to add up— even though all our libraries and APIs were free. We went through YCombinator's Startup School, and applied several times for YC funding to no avail.

⚰ RIP ⚰

Screenshot of the OG (now bygone) CorrelatePro homepage.

Screenshot of the original CorrelatePro homepage (no longer active).

All the videos and podcasts we'd shared— interviews with founders and venture capitalists (VCs)— told us we should have quit a long time ago. However, SEO takes time. Startups take time. They take dedication, and we weren't giving up.

There were weeks, even months (studying for finals), when we made little or no progress; but we always came back. We'd get burnt out, but we'd pick it up again and keep trying.

When Sam took down the server, I was terribly upset. It had consumed our time and our attention for years, and it felt awful... At the same time, it was liberating. We'd both been so fixated on fixing this thing without knowing if anyone would want it— even if it wasn't broken.

Learning Lessons

I don't want to tell you to give up, but I do want to say that— if you are a struggling entrepreneur— know when to move on. It might not be obvious, and it definitely won't be easy, but if you're ever going to succeed it's certainly necessary.

Sam and I learned everything we did about finance while working on CorrelatePro. We wanted to make investing as simple and straight-forward as possible— for ourselves, and for everyone else who sees investments as opportunities to rise up financially.

While we lost something dear to us, we learned a great deal. It was an invaluable experience that will give us some incredible insights when we move onto the next project. We did fail, but we're not giving up.