The Startup Story - From an Idea to Our First Customer in 7 Days

I am a programmer, and while thinking about ideas for a possible startup I always focused on the technical side, thinking it was the only important aspect of it.  A good idea plus good implementation equal success, or maybe not? Seven days after we brought to life changed the way I see it now. I'll try to sum up the different aspects of a web startup as I saw it. Please keep in mind that this is not a definitive guide, just a diary.

The Idea and The Co-Founder is an online English proofreading service, and is a service I realized I needed myself to enhance my blog. I thought it would be a good idea to solve my own problem, and would be something that would help me stay focused on customers needs. The money behind the idea was clear, i.e. serve the customer, collect the money, be happy. No advertising or any other uncertain sources of income involved. Also, I felt the competition wasn't getting it right. I wanted interactivity, shorter turnaround times, low prices. The deciding point was that I had a chance to team up with a great editor, Mira. I considered this to be a serious competitive advantage from day one because we wouldn't have to fully depend on external editors. The setup seemed ideal - me as the prototype customer, Mira as the prototype editor.

Competition and Decision

A few days after Mira arrived in Prague from the USA and we had planned to meet and talk about the idea, the list of LeWeb'09 Startup Competition attendees was published. What do you think I found? A startup called doing exactly what we were about to do. I can tell you that it was quite a disappointment, but then I realized that without competition no new ideas can be born, and that there were many companies offering proofreading on the market anyway. The problem with proofreading companies already on the market is that none of them operate or provide exactly the services we like (Wordy being the exception). We took this as a challenge to launch before LeWeb, and decided to make it in seven days so as to have a few days for testing. I know, I know... :-)

Name and Domain

Picking the name was surprisingly easy for us. It is a very subjective thing, but I am quite happy with what we have. The more problematic part was making sure the domain related things correctly. Dealing with DNS changes under time pressure is especially painful. Every change took several hours, things were cached here and there, and I ran into problems with Google AppEngine not supporting naked domains. My DNS hosting didn't support forwarding from the naked domain to www, so we had to make the switch to a different DNS server. I really hate messing with these DNS things.

Design and Implementation

In parallel with all the discussions and DNS setups, I spent a few evenings doing mockups in Balsamiq. What a great tool that is! It is not just about placing a button up or down, the most important role it plays is it helps you understand user interaction and the way your application is going to work. With this in mind, I removed every single feature that was not essential for the user to finish their order, and ended up with just three user screens, passing this over to Martin Cohen, the designer. We then iterated over different versions he published online for me, and step by step managed to get the final design. I asked my friends at Inmite to work on the implementation aspect, and I think they spent a total of 24 working hours on it. We decided for AppEngine Java runtime because their free limits are very nice, we've had a good experience with Java in the past, and things should scale, right? :-) Of course, I also had my day job, so I was spending all my evenings and late-nights with all of these other tasks. We also performed intensive testing on random blogs of my friends (I think I should send those fixed versions to them) to measure the average time needed for editing, and to define a fair price based on the outcome.


Here is the list of things I had to setup, register, link, etc.

  • Domain registration - We use for the .me domain
  • Version control system - We use Subversion hosted by our friends
  • Google Apps - We use it for email, docs, and AppEngine hosting
  • GetSatisfaction - It's our customer service of choice
  • AppEngine - We use the Java version
  • PayPal account - They have a nice sandbox, but sometimes it is awfully slow
  • AdWords account - Very good for finding keywords in your industry
  • Google Analytics - You want to be able to see the hockey stick, don't you?
  • Blog - We run our blog, on Tumblr
  • Twitter account and Facebook page
  • SMS notifications for new order - We use email forwarding to mobile operator service
  • Freelance license - For now, it saves costs
  • Bank account - Using

The Launch and The Future

Yes, we made it on time, in seven days. Then I asked myself, "Why on earth should anybody go to our page and use our service? And how will they even know we exist?" We started with AdWords and after the first day, a few hours after the deployment of the live version - bang! Our first order arrived. Eight pages of poetry (not exactly the easiest kind of proofreading), our first income! We were quite shocked by how fast it came.

I have to say however, that the coming days have not been as lucky. Once we ran out of credit on AdWords (it eats up money so fast!), visits to our site dropped to a few double digit unique visits per day. We took a sort of break during the Christmas and New Year holiday, and started back up again in January. Our main goal now is to think about marketing, the possible ways we can convince visitors to our site to use our service, the conversion rate, and what things need improvement. We added discount codes, started a blog, and have become active on Twitter and Facebook. The technical things seem to me to be less important. The thing I cared so much about - the implementation - is done, but we will hardly find any bugs if there won't be anyone to try our service out. One thing didn't change at all - the importance of UX design. I really hope we are doing well in that category. We are also talking to several smart guys that could help with the service growth, and I hope to eventually learn a lot more in this field.

I am happy about the feedback we are getting from all sides. What is absolutely incredible is the interest from prospective editors. We receive a new CV almost every day from English native speakers with great experience, relevant degrees and certificates, and we haven't even tried to advertise for the position! What is also very interesting is that when I talk to people about the potential of the service, each of them tells me that we should focus on their particular profession because there is a big need for this kind of service. Well, we sure hope so!

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