Thanks to several SoWink team members for reviewing this post and providing valuable feedback.
SoWink started in late January, 2011, when I, my brother Marius, and our CEO and friend Di Huang met to discuss an idea.
Everything was going really well for a while. In the last few months, though, more and more challenges became apparent. We weren't getting enough traction, enough funding, and our product didn't feel like one single, cohesive piece. It didn't seem to solve the problem we sought out to solve: make meeting new people online safe, private, quick and fun. It didn't fulfill our long-term vision.
On January 20, 2012, about a year later, SoWink discontinued its service. In this post, I will explain our decision as best as possible, as I see it right now.
I read that the first startup is almost inevitably a failure. That first-time entrepreneurs "have only an 18% chance of succeeding". That mistakes often come in large numbers and problems appear to be obvious in retrospect.
Ultimately, there comes a time when everything seems clear. After almost a year since its inception, it is clear to me now that SoWink would not have done well in the foreseeable future. We were missing the proper team dynamic and culture. Or, rather, we had it, but somehow lost it. And once you lose that, it's over.
Startups are hard because making a successful product is hard. Because having a perfect team is hard. And even once you have the perfect team, maintaining a cultural balance is important - most of all, trust and openness.
At SoWink, our mission is to provide the most exclusive social platform by empowering young people with a fun, safe and enriching dating experience throughout the world.
We lived by these values: working on SoWink was fun, and the product looked fun. Many of our users seemed to enjoy the values and the product. In a way, our mission sounds generic, but we liked to think that's because of the grand vision.
The dangers of a grand vision
SoWink’s vision is to revolutionize your dating world by removing all preexisting stigmas etched by current online dating providers through fostering a safe, social and fun environment in which our users can confidently entrust.
Our vision was very much long-term. The goal was to be efficient at delivering - helping people meet, yet to avoid the fall-off from achieving any dating site's goal: people find a date, they leave. That's where the fun product and discounts come in: you stay on SoWink with your date because it's fun. Because we offer something for your relationship.
The problem here is the challenge that our grand vision brought: how do you build a product that does all these things? How do you do it efficiently, quickly, cohesively? For a founding team of first-time entrepreneurs, we didn't make it easy on ourselves. We lacked focus and experience. We hired too many people too quickly. We set high expectations for growth.
Could we have done it? Why so certain to give up?
Trust and confidence
Once I no longer could trust that we are going somewhere, I no longer felt that SoWink is my company. I lacked the confidence to go any further. We needed a culture change, a reality check, and the strength of mind to get back on the right path and find our balance again.
From where I was standing, any right path seemed too far. Unreachable, almost. Sometimes, when you get so far off-track, getting back in the groove is simply not worth it. It's just like trust and relationships.
Our CEO's market research had set high expectations for traction, growth, and future plans. Over time, those expectations were simply not met - there was something missing. I made the mistake of believing in those expectations, when I should have done more research and fewer assumptions.
It took a long winter break to realize the stress and disbelief in what was actually happening. We had all been working so hard and wanting to believe that our product will succeed so much. I had forgotten to step away and do a reality check: our growth wasn't where it should have been; our funding wasn't around the corner and we needed it; our team was large and we had a responsibility towards them. Something had to change.
I had a 6 hour meeting with my brother, and he was the one who really helped me face the facts: we had forgotten to be founders. We hadn't relaxed in a while, hadn't thought about the big picture, hadn't looked back to see that we weren't heading in the direction we assumed. We had fooled ourselves.
The importance of a strong team and balance
In times like these I understand why it is important to have full faith and trust in your team. To not let stress, or investors, or anyone else get in the way of your company's culture or balance. To discuss issues openly and early. To express concern and recognize when expectations are not met. To distribute responsibility and to avoid false reassurance. To be realistic.
Much of our team had joined us too soon, before we had figured out our own culture, before we had found enough validation for our product. However, SoWink had a great team, and our exciting vision and product inspired everyone to work hard and contribute to the product in every aspect. The work we all did together was amazing. It made SoWink stand out, and the fact that we were able to maintain an enthusiastic team for so many months is an achievement in itself. It shows that we had some things right: an exciting product, fun values, and a vision that resonated with all of us. We had reached a team size of over 15, including part timers.
The good news
The good news is that SoWink has been a success in its failure. Failing fast and clearly, rather than slow and uncertainly = much better. In startup life, a year flies by extremely quickly. Most of the successful companies that you know today have pivoted several times and failed for several years before becoming a huge success.
I really do think that failing fast means learning fast. Which is not to say I am in favor of giving up. But, sometimes, it becomes clear that is the only option: everything seems to agree to it. A year was enough for us to understand that we're failing: it was slow enough to tell it's not going to work, but not too slow to have wasted months or years looking for something that wasn't there.
For me personally, this year has been a long time to learn a lot, but not so long that I feel sorry for not reaching this conclusion sooner.
The other good news is that learning from this failure will better prepare us all for the future.
I (and our entire SoWink team) would like to thank all of our users for their dedication, support and feedback. Our friends and partners for believing in our product. And to anyone and everyone who has helped us along the way. Thank you!
I personally would also like to thank our team for their passion and determination, and for their dedication to stick with us for so long and believe that we can succeed.