Loubna Ibrahim: Lessons I Learned from Failing My First Startup
I was born and raised in Africa and decided to come back to Beirut to pursue my studies in communication. I then started working in an PR agency, but soon I realized that I belonged neither to the PR industry nor to the agency life. Fortunately, I was exposed to the startup scene and got the opportunity to launch my own startup with the help of a technical partner.
My startup – TopShou, was born from the immediate need of a girl coming from Africa and not knowing the rules of fashion in the Lebanese Culture. I created the application to solve the problem of not knowing how to dress, thinking that many women shared this need.
First Failure: Understanding the Market Need
TopShou was an app that aimed to help women know what to wear based on what they had in their closets. The day we launched the app on the online stores, the application got more than a thousand downloads! But we quickly noticed that no one seemed to use any of its features. I was shocked, because when I used to tell people that my app can help them decide what to wear, they were extremely excited and desperately waiting for it! So, the fact that almost no one used it, made me intuitively talk to the users in order to investigate the issue. I used every single possible communication channel I could: Facebook, emails, phone calls, and even WhatsApp to understand the ‘why’. I spoke to more than 500 women, who were all very cooperative.
Identifying the issue: In order to get the best out the app, women were asked to take photos of every single clothing item they had. Some women did take photos, but it took them a full day to only shoot their accessories and shoes, and then they got bored. It was a hassle, and obviously most women did not take any photos. After I did my market research, which clearly came a little late, I realized I had to pivot my idea. This was my first failure: not understanding the real market need from day one and building assumptions. Yes, the need is there, but solving the need was from my own personal perspective. Just because this solution seemed logical and working for me did not mean that the market would react in the same way.
We proposed a solution coming from the users’ suggestions. We pivoted our app and it worked because we solved a real need.
Second Failure: Inability to monetize the platform
The second version of TopShou was a successful product. We turned it into a social commerce platform where women could play with clothes, mix and match outfits, and create inspiration mood boards in a simple way and then share it with the community. They could either get inspired about what to wear based on what they had in their closet, or they could learn what items they needed to add to their closet in order to complete a look and buy them through the app.
The second failure was that the product was not fit for the market from a business perspective. The pivot only allowed the product to succeed from an interaction perspective. We reached around 20 thousand registered users and more than 25 thousand looks created by users in less than 6 months, with less than US$5,000 spent on marketing. Women were capable of shopping through the app and the app would make money in three ways: affiliate marketing where we could get a commission on every purchase to redirect to, direct targeted ads and industry data analysis based on users’ behaviors in order to set the next market trends. Yet, we were not able to make any dollar for many reasons: the first was that the product was too early for the market because e-commerce was still not booming at that time. There was also the war in Syria and all the problems concerning the borders limiting ground shipping and raising the prices on regional shipping. We had also tapped into entering the Saudi market and made an Arabic version, but the market was still not ready.
Third Failure: Getting a second round of investment
My third failure was failing to attract investors that shared my vision. Investors didn’t want to invest in a social platform, to begin with, because the return on investment takes too long. The biggest chunk of our revenue model was data, and the market was not ready to understand the value, although we had a lot of data to offer.
Our data could have been used to predict fashion trends. This data would have guided fashion brands to better assess their upcoming collections. They would know, for example, that if they want to target a specific age group in the Middle East, they would need to have specific colors or models in their next collection. Even better, since we had the data of preferences, fashion brands could have been able to target each person on the app better than any other social platform because of the smart engine recommendation that we had in place based on user profiling.
But this was a long-term plan and no investor had the vision for it. To reach that objective, we needed more money to scale the marketing and operations. Although our user acquisition cost was very low, we needed to acquire at least 100 thousand users to make it interesting for investors.
All the investors I met either did not understand the value added of TopShou in the long term or did not want to partake in a social commerce platform – except for one, who understood that the platform could add value to their portfolio. They were able to see it as an innovative 2-way communication channel with their fashion audience. The only issue we had was that it was the worst deal we could ever get: they wanted to lock the team in for three years at a predefined valuation from day one.
I decided to kill my baby startup after realizing I really didn’t want an investor I was incompatible with. This was one of the hardest decisions. We stopped the operations only, but never really shut the servers down.
Fourth Failure: My passion for fashion
One of the things that also lead to the failure of my first startup was that I was extremely passionate, just not for the fashion industry. My real focus was on the product, building it right, and making sure it would solve a need. I didn’t realize back then that my true passion was ‘solving a need’. I didn’t blend in well in the fashion world, so I couldn’t pitch my product properly. People would see this weakness in me and not buy into my app. This played a big role in me not being successful enough to pull it though. I think had I been passionate enough about fashion, I would have probably taken the bad deal proposed from the investor because that would have definitely immersed me in the industry. I was not even ready to be the image of my own startup. To solve this, I tried to find a co-founder who could play that role and take responsibility. I just couldn’t find the right person.
Here’s what I learned
From my failure, I understood that in order to be successful, I needed to be working on something that I was really passionate about. After shutting down the operations of TopShou, I had the opportunity to learn design thinking and user experience from Google. The fact that I loved sharing what I learned with others helped me become an official Google Trainer on this subject.
I decided to use the expertise that I acquired in my startup journey and moved from being an entrepreneur to be an intrapreneur. I joined Ideatolife, a company that provides smart software solutions, allowing me to use my entrepreneurship skills to create something within a more mature startup.
Through my work with Ideatolife, I established and run a product innovation lab, pushing it away from solely being a software development company into becoming a creative problem-solving software development company. “I’m coming from a startup background, I built my own startup, I learned from Google how to create design sprints, and how to create products with a human-centric approach so now let’s build products for clients with this mindset.” This was my argument.
I was so lucky that Ideatolife provided this playground. I started working with different clients. Of course, in the beginning, my experience was small. I first started creating solutions for other startups and then I slowly moved into creating solutions for international companies. I would have never gotten the chance to work on such accounts by myself but the fact that I worked for a well-established company allowed me to learn from them and bring my expertise to them.
I would sum up my learnings as follows:
- Validate cheaply by talking to the right and concerned people from day one.
- Partner up with the right people from business partners, co-founders to investors, because you can’t do it alone.
- Be confident in what you are selling because people will believe in your product because they believe in you.
- The more you fail the more confidence you gain, because you are learning one new way of how not to do things.
- Trust the process. I believe in the design thinking process. It allows you to use empathy to build a product that is human-centric.
Here’s more of what I learned
It doesn’t stop here. As a person, failure taught me many things about myself: it taught me that I can always come up with something new. It changed the way I communicate with people. It taught me to love what I do.
If you are doing something without passion just for the sake of doing it, then don’t! If you eat, drink and sleep what you do and still want to do it then you can definitely succeed in it.
I learned to let go, to stop being a perfectionist. When you are a perfectionist it takes you so much time to get things ‘just right’. It takes you more time to fail. You need to move on quickly from things that you know are a failure. Not admitting so makes things drag and waste your time and money because you keep telling yourself that it’s impossible that I fail this!
It taught me to embrace failure in my life as part of my growing process. What I learned on a business level taught me that it is ok to fail on a personal level as well because you are better at dealing with it.
People usually accept failure in business because they can, but they don’t accept failure on a personal level because of their ego. Eventually, when you fail your startup and you start something new, you learn that if you fail anything in life you are able to start again with a fresh mindset. You learn to be resilient.
And one last thing, keep on failing! Fail cheaply and improve quickly!
About the author
Loubna Ibrahim is a human-centric product consultant. She started her tech career in 2014 when she founded her own tech startup TopShou – a fashion social commerce platform designed to help women decide what to wear. After the failure of TopShou, Loubna learned the design thinking and user experience process from Google, and she became Google trainer on the same subject. In 2017, she joined Ideatolife – a creative software development company to found and run a design thinking lab, this is where she got the chance to work with the likes of Daimler group, IBM, Lamprell, Zain Cash, WHO and other big names, as well as many rising tech startups. She is heavily engaged in the innovation and civic ecosystems in Europe and the Middle East where she has given and participated in many talks and workshops in design thinking, user experience and innovation for people. A very motivated and passionate entrepreneur, Loubna is currently working on her third startup to help people with micro-savings.