During our first year at HBS, my classmates and I took the
opportunity to build cleverlayover, a flight search engine that uses advanced
algorithms to find flights hundreds of dollars cheaper than any other search
engine. We were able to acquire 20,000 users within the first month thanks to
the diversity of skill-sets on the team.
the process, we tackled four challenges that every early stage startup will
face. Here's how we approached each of them.
Choosing a team
a team can be difficult because there are so many dimensions to consider. Some
teams form around a specific skill-set to create a competitive advantage while
others try to round out as many weaknesses as possible. Some form around friend
groups, while others form around shared interests and commitment levels. Each
of these formation criteria creates a different experience.
team came together because we had a shared passion for technology and building
great user-focused products: four out of the six team members had cofounded
their own company, three had worked in product development, and four were
engineers. Everyone on the team was very analytically inclined, but we all
brought a different secondary skill-set. The former venture capitalists had the
pattern recognition needed for narrowing the ideation funnel while the serial
entrepreneurs knew what it took to execute. The engineers built a great piece
of technology while the award-winning photographer designed a compelling
importantly, though, we had all worked together in the past during various
class exercises, and we knew we would have fun together. The various simulations
and group projects at Harvard Business School provide a great opportunity for
finding cofounders. We had seen each other's strengths and weaknesses and knew
what we wanted to learn from one another through working as a team.
Coming up with ideas
up with ideas was more difficult than choosing a team--at first, we felt that
every good idea had already been tried. However, we were able to create a
spreadsheet of dozens of ideas, all of which we felt were viable and exciting,
by treating every moment of the day as a brainstorming opportunity. In addition
to white-boarding during in-person meetings, we maintained an on-going group
text where we would jot down ideas as we went through our day-to-day
times, people keep notebooks to write down quick ideas, but they miss the
opportunity to generate immediate discussion on those ideas. Through our group
text, any idea that got introduced would be built upon on the spot, and the
discussion would inspire new tangential ideas.
we'd perform a regular evaluation of the ideas introduced to see if any of the
business models could be applied to a different vertical. That allowed us to be
exhaustive in our options and would also ensure that the best industry for the
idea could be found--some business models required industries or customer
segments with higher frequencies of transactions or larger transaction sizes to
came up with the idea for cleverlayover when we booked our own flights for the
holiday season and realized so many inefficiencies existed in flight pricing.
After experiencing travel with an additional layover and looking at the data to
size the opportunity, we added it to our list.
Narrowing down the idea
more difficult than coming up with ideas was narrowing down the list. The
prospect of committing to a single idea was terrifying, and even though the
opportunity existed to pivot once or twice, we still felt limited in what we
process included several meetings to synthesize the ideas into four categories,
three rounds of voting on the best categories, two prototypes to test out our
favorite ideas and countless customer interviews to validate their
applied our initial filter on not only the market size of each opportunity but
also whether or not the products could be used in single-player mode--that is,
users could find value from using the product even if they were the only person
on the platform. We felt that generating enough liquidity for products that
relied on network effects would require more than five months. This filter
allowed us to narrow down the list of ideas to fewer than a dozen.
also filtered the ideas by looking at our skill-sets to see where we could gain
a competitive advantage. With an analytically strong team, we focused on ideas
where we could acquire large amounts of data easily. Finally, we wanted to work
on something we were passionate about since we would be spending the next five
months, and possibly longer, dedicated to the company. Our most important
filter was how excited we felt about the idea.
Acquiring the first thousand users
we soon realized that acquiring the first thousand users would be harder than
choosing the idea. In the initial days when we just launched the product and
had no users, we had to deal with the uncertainty of not having outside
validation. We heard a great deal of negative feedback on why the idea wouldn't
work and how many competitors existed. Based on the pushback we received from
peers, we considered pivoting early.
only thing that kept us going was a conviction in ourselves and our idea. We
redesigned features that confused users and changed the site's user experience
based on the feedback we received. Gradually, people to whom we showed the site
became more and more excited about the savings they could find.
the early days, we acquired users on a person-by-person basis. We would show
the site to the person sitting next to us on a plane or waiting in line at a
restaurant--places where people were trapped into uncomfortable conversations
with strangers tended to be ideal. We'd show them the savings on flights and
invited them to verify by looking at the bookings pages. We received the best
reactions when people had just booked flights and now discovered that cleverlayover could have saved them a couple hundred
dollars. They would go home to tell their friends and family about the product,
and we'd acquire users gradually through word-of-mouth. We received our lucky
break when friends kept telling people about our product, and word
reached Conde Nast.
journey so far on this early-stage startup has been incredible. We worked
through some tough challenges, but the great part about a startup is that it
never gets easier. Looking forward, there will always be more problems to solve
and more opportunities to learn.