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What The Pulse App Co-Founders Learned About Building Products

Pulse Co-Founders Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta are two Stanford graduates that were always building side projects. All this experience made them learn some valuable lessons that helped them build the Pulse app, which earned them a $90 million acquisition from LinkedIn.

Two weeks after the acquisition, they gave a talk at Stanford University and shared some of the lessons they learned.

Focus on Solutions, Not Ideas

Entrepreneurs always have ideas for new businesses, but they often place too much emphasis on the ideas themselves. Instead, Gupta says entrepreneurs should focus on solutions to problems.

Gupta learned this lesson when he was working on the BuzzVid app, which he co-founded with Evan Reas. The app was built after iPhone 3GS launched, which had the capability of recording video.

BuzzVid was an app where people could record a video from anywhere in the world and share it on BuzzVid. So if there’s a celebrity sighting in Los Angeles, a person could take a video, share it on BuzzVid and users of the app would see it on the app and be able to view the video.

The app failed, getting 200 downloads in the first day, 20 the next, and about 2 downloads per day for the rest of the week. After that about nobody downloaded it.

The learning from this is to focus on the solution. Gupta and Reas just had an idea, it didn’t solve any problems for people.

Time Is More Valuable Than Money

You time is much more valuable than the other things people tell you are valuable, Gupta says. He says in the first month of Pulse, they had an advertiser offer $30,000 for ad space in their app. They declined the offer and instead took the time to focus on their product roadmap, because they knew that would be much more valuable in the long run.

Don’t Build Without Knowing How People Live

When Kothari was working on a side project, he would go out and learn how people live. This helped him understand how to build a product, because he didn’t want to force a major behavioral change in people. When they were building Pulse, they’d ask people how they currently read the news, what sources they’re reading, how often they read the news, etc. They even went out and showed people the app and asked how much they would pay for it, and this helped form their initial price price of $3.99.

When speaking about understanding people, Kothari says:

“Understanding how people live is very important for building your products because you really need to know how people currently live, what people currently do, and what problems they have before you actually go out there and build something for them.”

Fix Your Product Before Going Mainstream

Pulse took 5 weeks to create, and it was very barebones design. Before attempting to get press with some mainstream news outlets (and even before launching in the App Store), Kothari and Gupta first recorded a 1 minute demo video of their app and sent it to design blogs. A lot of readers became curious about the app and were interested in using it.

Shortly thereafter they released Pulse in App Store without any press. It had a lot of success, earning the #1 spot in the News category, but also had some negative feedback. People didn’t like the visual design, they wanted more sources, a better catalog, etc. They then spent 2 weeks iterating on the product to those feedback points. Kothari says that getting that early feedback was important.

They also worked with a visual designer, and when they had their new version they shot another demo video, but this time featured stories from TechCrunch and New York Times. They emailed both TechCrunch and NYT, telling them that they were featured in this video for a new app. Surprisingly, it earned them press from both sources (TechCrunch article here and NYT here). After the TechCrunch press, Pulse became the #1 most downloaded app in the App Store, and because of this success the New York Times picked up on it. It even got a mention from Steve Jobs at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June 2010.

Don’t Slow Product Development When Fundraising

If you’re in the consumer internet space, push something out first. Don’t worry about getting funding, just push something out because it doesn’t cost too much money to create something. If you do get some traction, they you can think about raising money.

Don’t let your product suffer when fundraising. Often times in a young company, it takes both founders attention to raise money. But with Pulse, Kothari went out and raised money while Gupta stayed and continued to work on product. Gupta says if you let your product suffer while fundraising, it actually hurts the chances you’ll get the funding you need.

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