Philipp Heuberger

What if your business is neither a failure nor a success?

Most stories in business are either about the huge successes or the fabulous trainwrecks of failures. I get it. It feels weird—unwarranted, even—to tell a meandering tale where there’s no clear lesson learned. You want something straightforward you can pass on to the reader as this one shining piece of advice so they have a clear path forward, or at least know what to avoid.

The problem is, these narrow stories don’t always reflect the reality of having a business. Not everything is either a total success or a complete failure — there are many shades of gray in between.

Mine, CaptureKit, lives in the gray area. When I explain it to people I meet, I don’t call it a business, because that doesn’t feel quite right. I only have two customers, so at this point it’s more like an idea that launched but hasn’t really been validated.

But here’s where it gets interesting: it turns a profit and I don’t necessarily have to put much effort into it.

Shades of gray

Okay, what is it then? A business? An MVP still waiting for validation a year into its life? A failure, because it hasn’t attracted any customers beside the two I practically launched with? I don’t know. It’s a little bit of everything.

The story of CaptureKit is an unusual one, to say the least. I didn’t come up with it myself. A friend asked me if I wanted to start a little business because he knew this one company and they were in dire need of a service that helps capture data from scanned documents, such as paper surveys, etc.

They knew about the incumbents, but those didn’t really work for them. Licensing tools with bad UX for hundreds of thousands of euros with expensive, mandatory training wasn’t really what they had in mind. More modern cloud-native products that break down if you have a lot of handwritten text to capture were also out of the question, so there was a real need and an opportunity for the product that I ended up building.

Initially, I thought I’d had struck gold and quickly estimated in my head how big the market must be for something like CaptureKit. I dreamt of working on it full-time and making a good living.

A year in, I’m disillusioned, to say the least. Sure, I’m frustrated that I didn’t acquire any customers in its one year of existence, but on the other hand, I’m also not losing money on it. Clearly, it could be worse.

Maybe you’re screaming at your screen right now, wondering what I did in the past months; why I didn’t acquire any customers. Well, it’s not that I didn’t try.

I did what pretty much everybody does when they launch a product. I set up a landing page that described what the product does, had a testimonial showing that it works and delivers value to somebody, and added a way to get in touch with me. Crickets.

I did the obvious thing and tried to leverage my network. Surely, there must be someone I know who either needs this thing themselves or knows somebody who does. Nope. I cold-emailed similar companies trying to build the product I’d already completed and told them about CaptureKit. They should be happily waiting for me to pitch them something already in its beta phase, right? Of course not.

But let’s face it: that hardly ever works. People don’t care about your product; they care about solving their problems and my cold-email didn’t give them the confidence that CaptureKit could do that. I rightfully failed and learned my lesson.

At the same time, I joined the Sales For Founders course that was created by Louis Nicholls. It’s a great resource. I learned a lot — specifically, writing effective and engaging emails — and I keep learning from him and fellow students every day.

I took my lessons and I revised my cold-emailing strategy, focused on their pain rather than my product, and tried to schedule calls with them to first and foremost learn what I had been missing and potentially pitch them my solution somewhere down the road. At first, again, nothing. But this time I know I couldn’t give up so easily, so I followed up. In the midst of a resounding silence, I got one reply: a CEO who was out of the country for a business trip. He said he’d get in touch with me once he got back.

Wow, he was clearly busy and still took the time to write me an email? That sure says something.

I waited roughly three weeks and, of course, didn’t hear back from him. I wrote him a third time and lo and behold, he agreed to talk to me. Lesson learned: follow up. People’s lives are busy, especially when they get back from a trip and things have been piling up while they were away.

Finally, we had our call. Unfortunately he didn’t want to talk about his company’s problems but only hear my pitch, and I wasn’t confident enough to steer him back to learn more about his pains. He really only wanted to assess if CaptureKit could solve an extremely specific problem they were facing. It couldn’t and it won’t, but at least I got some sort of reaction.

The bitter truth

And that brings me to the most painful thing: you launch something and nobody cares. Your friends will obviously tell you it’s a great idea and they can imagine that lots of companies will need it and buy it. Yeah, my thoughts exactly! One year ago, that is.

But outside of your friends and family, nobody cares about your meticulously crafted emails or perfectly practiced pitch. More than likely, you won’t even get a “we’re not interested.” It’s soul-crushing and absolutely wrecks your motivation to carry on with the work.

Remember how I said I have two customers? Yes, the friend who gave me the idea has a business partner, who referred a second customer: a debt collection agency (thank you, Christian and Martin 👋).

Naturally, I tried to explore debt collectors as a potential market segment once I secured that lead — if one of them is using my product, surely there must be others. There are roughly 1,000 debt collection agencies in Germany alone, so 1% of the market should be doable, right? I sent out 50 emails and got at least a handful of responses…all of them rejections. Still, it felt like I was making progress. Sort of.

Turns out, debt collection is, for the most part, an industry that didn’t keep up with tech trends or market innovations. Most of them still use analog, paper-based workflows with the odd spreadsheet sprinkled in here and there. Modern agencies like the one that uses my service, on the other hand, are few and far between. Once I figured that out, I realized I’d pretty much captured the available market in Germany with my one client.

Next, I tried to widen the net and reach out to different markets and see who else CaptureKit might resonate with. I wrote to event agencies and museums to assess if they needed help with evaluating visitor surveys, and to marketing and fundraising agencies that send out surveys in the mail. So far, no luck.

To be fair, I didn’t send out enough emails to definitively rule those markets out. But I feel a bit worn out at this point.

So here I am, still not knowing what the right market is for my product and having a long way to go to find it. CaptureKit is stuck somewhere in between stations and I don’t have enough motivation to grease the wheels.

The struggle is normal, and you’re not alone

I’m planning on playing the long game on this one, so I think I’m going to step back for a bit, recharge my batteries, and get back to it when I’m feeling it again. There’s no rush, no deadline. It can take as long as it has to, and I feel that sometimes it’s better to take a step back and let things unfold in their own time.

Maybe this all sounds a little sad, but that’s not how I see it. I learned a lot from working on this. New technologies like Serverless, React, the AWS ecosystem (I used to be a mobile dev), business lessons, and even a few life lessons. I really can’t complain and I don’t intend to.

Sometimes it helps to know that others go through the same problems, have the same doubts, and, more often than not, don’t know what the right way forward is. If you’re in a similar place right now in your indie hacking journey, just know that you’re not alone.