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We usually develop an app for a customer. But how cool would it be to have our own product? Our own Flashcard app got us to spend thousands of dollars. We have been trying to run it without investors and advertisement. Instead of great success we have experienced great entrepreneurship lessons (for now). It also transformed me, a person who has never worked in IT before, into the app project/product manager.

mobile phone with Vocabulary Miner app placed on a map

I once took part in a workshop, which encouraged people to invest in their idea and start their own project. But as Forbes reminds us “Great idea is not enough”. We knew it but we also believed it can’t be that hard. Others though so, too. Didn’t they?

In 2017, I accidentally found a job in a young, Czech IT company for mobile app development. It had a friendly approach, almost no hierarchy, and, surprisingly, right from its start in 2014 a remote-first team (all of its 10 members have been working from home).

I said “accidentally” because back then I was still using an old “dumb” phone by choice, ignoring any “smart” apps and gadgets. When asked during the job interview what software I would use to remember something very important I answered:

“I would write it on the back of my hand.” (I still do it but I also use Trello now.)

It was just an administrative job so the need for mobile app literacy wasn’t probably a must-have but I still rather won’t ask my interviewer-colleague what he thought about me back then.

Flashcard App Idea Was Born And Passion for Our Own Product Rose

The company came into existence in 2014 together with an idea to have its own product along with creating apps for customers (such as Twisto, Integromat, Poetizer, Kuberg, PwC). We, in SKOUMAL, have been successful with turning ideas of others into working products and technology problems into technological know-how.

Why not educate our junior developers on our own product? While creating our own Flashcard app Vocabulary Miner, they would learn to code better and the users would learn vocabulary. We will learn by teaching others. Perfect!
The plan was to create a simple intuitive tool for teachers to teach vocabulary and students to learn it innovatively, interactively, and without the many distractions that other Flashcard apps supported (such as ads, games that single out the word from context, senseless sentences, etc…)

Vláďa, the brain behind Vocabulary Miner, once shared his frustration of a Flashcard app user:

“I felt like there was always something missing in the other vocabulary apps. I was looking for an app that brings quality, simplicity, and usefulness in one.“

…and turned it into our own Flashcard app.

That was the story of 2014. But…

Piles of Man-days, Scattered Focus, Unfinished Ideas

Back to my story line. I joined the team in 2017. Besides administration, I was also introduced to a very small translation task on the internal project — Vocabulary Miner laying sideways for idle hours of developers in strict opposition to bold 2014 plans.

In 2017 I first thought how cool the app was. The Miner girl seemed to interact with a user with speech bubbles so she could be your personal vocabulary trainer.

But as I started to work on translations in the app (there were only Czech and English at that time) — I found out they were actually user-UNfriendly, technical and sometimes with typos or simply completely wrong. At that time, I bumped into other vocabulary learning apps and wasn’t sure about the difference between us and them. “What do I know…” I said to myself. “I know nothing about apps. They probably checked other competitor apps.” They did… a teeny tiny bit.

Flashcard app Vocabulary Miner screens

How do we communicate now? We are using “I” instead of “we” for supporting the feeling of your personal friend-trainer. We also added e.g. interjections to communicate more lively.

I would dare to say now that even MVP (Minimal Viable Product) had not been finished by 2017- 3 years after the app was first launched. The app was in both Stores but it was not making any money since the business model wasn’t finished.

There was no marketing or brand awareness except for a few Czech press releases. We couldn’t make money at the project. We asked very few people and language schools for feedback on the product. By then, it had cost us 250 000 CZK (cca 11 000 USD) as we know now.

It was all only the tip of the iceberg I was gonna hit when in 2019, I happened to be trusted with the product/project management of Vocabulary Miner.

I had to be (and probably still am) the most inexperienced app product manager ever who hadn’t even had a smartphone a year before and suddenly was supposed to lead a yet unsuccessful product that had already spent over 1 000 000 CZK ( cca 46 000 USD). Go girl!

First lessons in our own product development learned

1|Think it trough. Get paid soon.
Startupists believe that “If you are not embarrassed with your first product version you launched too late.” But you should not be embarrassed for 2 out of 3 main development years because you didn’t think it through with the business model. You keep postponing the paid part of the product and now costs are high. We didn’t even know the break-even point for the product during the first 4 years. In 2018, we finally launched the Premium model with thousands of word lists and then relaunched it again with a better pricing and screen to at least have a chance to cover the costs.

It seems crazy but if it is not your main product (since a service – software development for customers is) you don’t feel so much urge to monetize it.

Flashcard app Vocabulary Miner before and now

Our Premium screen and pricing. Before 1.83 USD/year. Then 1.38 USD/month. We changed it recently again to 1.99 USD/month.

2| Check your finances.

Our company was doing great. However, the internal product wasn’t. We believed it would turn around.  We didn’t checked the numbers regularly trying to optimize them by setting real goals. Internal project expenses should not be out of your focus. It can be your business child but be aware of how much it costs you. Intuition is a great tool, but data is greater.

3| Stick to the product/brand principles.

Or better said — have principles to build the product around. If you planned an interactive Miner girl with cute speech bubbles to teach vocabulary, it shouldn’t in any version end up like a head of a girl talking like a machine that no language school has ever heard about. After 3 years of development, we finally created value within based on  Lean Canvas and #saymore and “keep it as simple as possible” motto that makes the core of the product for us and users, too.

4| Hire professionals, at least sometimes.

After a couple translating fails we started to cooperate with translators to review and translate the app (now we have 7 language settings and Word lists in around 20 languages so far).

language options in Vocabulary Miner

You can learn any language if you create your own Word lists. Or learn from almost 20 languages with ready-to-learn Word lists.

5| Know your competitors very well and develop your product “against them”.

In 2019, it was the first time we looked into our competition for real. Sure, we knew about Memrise, Quizlet, and Duolingo before. We knew we wanted to “keep it as simple as possible.” We covered Czech language with much bigger precision than many of these apps, since we are based in Czech Republic.

Flashcard app Vocabulary Miner screens

Different approaches: the competitor vs. the latter screens (B2 level and A2 level) show our current “Czech” state

But such shallow research isn’t enough. We really looked at our competitors for the first time in 2019 and in 2020 Ultimate Guide to Find the Best Flashcards Apps for Learning Vocabulary (for you). Then we based our further product development on that.

We now know that Vocabulary Miner, aside from simplicity and intuitiveness, focuses exclusively on language vocabulary. It supports learners to compare in learning to no one but themselves, to focus on learning and not games or ads, to understand their progress easily, and, if possible, to understand a word in the context.

Too many plans and ideas without true leadership

During 2014 – 2019 we were doing a bit of user testing on Vocabulary Miner, a tiny bit of marketing, and too much programming. Project manager was no one and everyone in their dull time. New plans and new features were coming and going.

6| Don’t let your idea rot.

Maybe your internal product is not the highest priority but if it’s just lying around somewhere without leadership, it is probably losing its meaning and costing you money without a better future ahead. Ask yourself often, where are you heading?

Once again, think it through in the beginning. What will bring you money and when? Set goals.

7| Have someone who believes in the project and can see its future or call it quits when the time is right.

There are days when the only thing that will get me through frustration is a song from Zootopia – Try everything.

Marketing & Sales limping behind

I really think that for every software-developing company like us, there is a huge difference between creating a customer’s product and creating an internal product.

A great challenge is to do both, simultaneously. The main difference is that the customer has deadlines and overall priority. We help them create a solution to their problems, we do the job, we support them technically. That’s about the size of it.

Vocabulary Miner as an internal product needs a never-ending after touch — marketing and sales. And we didn’t have any experience in these. We were just a bunch of developers and one inexperienced woman…kind of like The IT Crowd.

In the beginning, some of us believed that a good product finds its customers with just a few marketing bits such as a press release a year. That belief turned out wrong. Now, we are starting to work hard on those time-consuming “soft” parts like marketing, content and sales instead of just believing in the app’s ability to sell itself.

8| Spend at least 20% of developing investment on marketing.

Spend more on it if you can. Talk to people about what matters to them, study it, and then talk to people again through the media.

In 2019, we started with our blog on Medium (in 2020 we have our very own) and we kicked off Instagram and Facebook. We started coming out to the world. My colleague Viki and I attended an international language-oriented fair in Berlin – Expolingua, we are cooperating with community teachers, and we have articles published online. We started Humans of Languages on Instagram – a project that bridges the world of language learners and teachers. In 2020, we made our first sales calls out into the unknown of the language-learning world, getting feedback and first interests. And it is slowly working. But maybe too slowly.

 

9| Go out into the world. Get a passionate sales person onboard.

Make calls and presentations. Ask, ask, ask. Talk, talk, talk.

Failure seems to be the end of the road but we are still better than 90%

More than 9 out of 10 start-ups fail within 10 years. In 5 years the chances are 50:50. It has been 6 years from the very beginning of our own startup idea – Flashcard app. We might not have 4 years to go or fail. But we tried.

The app has been discovered by users in over 40 countries all without paid ads. We have stick to our principles. Yeah… these are lessons learned in entrepreneurship.

10| Don’t call it quits that easily.

Take time to think things through. In the beginning and in the end. So if you have a big entrepreneurship dream, prepare for great entrepreneurship lessons. I am not giving up yet because I think we are doing a great job now and we have learnt it the hard (unforgettable) way. 

“We are making money, finishing a really good product. It taught many developers to code better. It taught me everything I know about marketing and about app product management. It taught me to talk with the team. It taught me that business is a creative and courageous field. It taught me to go into an arena as Brené Brown says.“
– I told myself.

To tell you truth, getting onboard in the middle of a sinking ship inexperienced…is one of my stupidest and courageous ideas ever. I am hitting that iceberg really hard…and learning a lot big time.

Yes, we could have prevented all the failures mentioned above and be better. But actually, we couldn’t have. Because we were learning on the go, growing up, although a bit painfully, but without outside investment or agency. We strived and learnt A LOT.

I, the app product/project manager and marketing explorer built only on trial and error, am not sure if I get another 4 years to go. Probably not… For now, Vocabulary Miner achieved one of its goals – We learn by teaching others.

I certainly did and if we fall into 90% of startups, I can try better next time.

What is the fuzz about? Here is a short preview of the app:

Zuzana Pápayová