Musings from a (failed) social media startup - part 1.0

In 2020, I co-founded Comet. I was a first-time founder - pretty sure I was building the next big social media company because I was ‘solving my own problem’ and ‘doing things that don’t scale’. I was convinced that I was ‘building a 10x better product than existing solutions’, and that I just needed to somehow solve the early chicken-and-egg problem of social networks and marketplaces.

Before Comet became an attempt at a startup, it was a simple quarantine project - a ‘Curated reads’ newsletter, run by two nerds, who gulped down a ton of wide-ranging content for breakfast. Twice every week, we sent out curated lists of links and summaries, of content we’d read that week. When more people started subscribing, we thought - “how cool would it be, for us to also know what friend X, who’s passionate about space, is reading about that space (pun intended) these days?” I’d recently finished reading Zero to One, and had drunk the startups-change-the-world koolaid. So we started with what all startup books and courses tell you to do - user research. We interviewed friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. In hindsight, I know we were sampling on the dependent variable (picking people similar to us who faced this problem), and didn’t do enough to understand the extent/ importance of this problem in their lives. Yes, they wanted to discover better educational content, but how badly? Were they really unhappy with their current content discovery mechanisms? Who were ‘they’ and what did ‘content’ mean? At the time, we convinced ourselves we knew.

Comet was a labour of love. We tried really hard. We started off trying to build a ‘Goodreads for articles and podcasts’. Books had Goodreads, movies had IMDB, but my favorite content formats - long-form articles and podcasts - had no signal of quality. The problem, though, was that articles are nearly infinite. The marginal cost of creating one is close to zero (unlike books and movies), and rating every article would look like creating another Google. Were we basically creating a Google atop Google that would better index and rank existing content? A verticalized Google for long-form articles and podcasts? Somewhere in this process, we realized.. most people don’t really care about Goodreads or IMDB ratings. We care about recommendations from our friends, and other people we know and respect. So we decided we'd build a Twitter + Reddit-like product, only for long-form ‘educational’ content where you could discover content your friends/ people in your network were reading and recommending. From this, sprung the idea of ‘curators’. Being a creator today is ‘cool’, and gives creators social and financial equity - could we make it cool to be a curator of content rather than a creator? Could we incentivize people to curate and share the content they were anyway reading? Layer this with the buzz around ‘creator economy’ through 2020 (pre-web3 buzz), and we were convinced we were on to something! I thought to myself “I don’t want to necessarily write/ create content, but wouldn’t it be cool if I had a ‘curation profile’ for all the content I recommend, just like I have a LinkedIn for my professional profile and Instagram for my personal life?”

Then began a multi-month building journey - we were obsessed with building a clean, beautiful, bug-free product. I knew all about scrappy MVPs, but I thought the clean, beautiful UX was key to the solution itself. We were fortunate to recruit a small, driven team of A players, who were as excited about the problem as we were! Many, many Zoom calls, WhatsApp chats, Slack messages, and excited conversations later - we launched our iOS app on TestFlight.

You know what they say about social media products? Demand was so high, the website/ app crashed; waitlists were thousands of people; everyone wanted it. That’s the narrative I’d heard and read about, and somewhere in my head, that’s what I was expecting would happen. What they don’t tell you about 99.999% of social media products (or any product for that matter)? Launching your beautiful product is fun and EASY. Finding people (who are not your parents or friends) to use your product, is HARD. Retaining them is HARDER. Nobody’s lining up to use your product, your servers are not crashing. Traction has to be manufactured. We tried hard to manufacture it - badgering friends, promoting on Sub-Reddits, Twitter DMs, trying to recruit ‘niche influencers’, fake Product Hunt launch(es), multiple accounts, and everything that most founders try. We thought adding a Chrome extension would help engagement, since most people read long-form content on their desktop. Building was always the fun part. Selling was hard, frustrating, and demoralizing. It was hard to not see linear input-outcome relationships, unlike my previous banking and investing jobs. It was hard to not take it personally. It still is.

When it’s not working, you know. Our co-founding team also realized we were at different stages in life, willing to take different levels of risk, and commit for different time periods. I felt tired and burnt out - Comet had started in place of the 6-month vacation I was finally supposed to take before business school. The decision to call it quits, has been one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever taken in life, perhaps the toughest professionally (and I’ve taken some tough ones!). The thing I wasn’t prepared for, was separating the failure of my startup, from the feeling of failure of ME. As a type A personality, and straight A student, ‘failure’ had been a made-up answer for most interviews till then. But this, now - I had failed. I was most sad about disappointing our team - they’d believed in us, and we’d let them down. The hardest part by far, was telling myself that I wasn’t giving up; I was just listening to the market, and myself - it wasn’t the right idea and the right time. Sometimes, I still wonder - what if we’d kept going? But more often than not, I know it was the right decision to stop. Our small, amazing team of 3 are all now founders or early employees at kickass startups!

I learnt so much about starting up, social media, go-to market, selling, and building (learnings in the next post). Most importantly, I learnt so much about myself. Despite all the self-doubt and failure, the highs, fun, camaraderie, excitement, and dreaming made up for everything. I wouldn’t trade that year for anything in my life :)

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