Immotionar post mortem: what errors we made in our VR startup and how to avoid them for yours

In my last post I told you that my startup has just shut down. If you don’t know it, its name was Immotionar: our purpose was to offer full body virtual reality to every kind of headsets, mixing VR HMD with body tracking sensors like Microsoft Kinects. An innovative product, that has failed nonetheless.

With today’s post I want to highlight some errors we made, so that you can avoid them in your startup journey (if you plan in becoming an entrepreneur).

So, this is a list of the main keypoints I want to higlight.

The team

Investors say that the team is the most important thing that they evaluate when deciding if investing in a company. Team is the core feature. You don’t get it until the moment you get in trouble.

Immotionar full body vr startup
Me and Gianni, in one of our best moments: we had just won the FaberDay 2016 prize

A valuable team is composed by people:

  • That can cover all the main competencies required in a startup: technical, marketing, business. Me and Gianni were just two techies (with Gianni being an A-class engineer), with no business and marketing skills. Our supporting company, Beps had some of the other skills, but only relative to a small company performing B2B consultancies, not to a startup that wants to rule the world. So the team was flawed since the first day. If you don’t have all the competencies inside the company, you won’t know how to properly move: me and Gianni were great in developing the product, but we had no idea in how to sell it, for example. We had no idea in how to write a business plan, in how to look for an investment. That’s a clear path to failure;
  • That are ready to die for the company: the startup should be their first thought when they wake up and the last one when they go to sleep. Has to be their priority. Maybe they have other projects, but should not lose focus on the startup. In our case, Beps was an IoT consulting company, that while very kind in providing us support, had as its priority the one of offering its IoT consultancies… Immotionar was just a secondary project;
  • That are a good match together: even if things go really bad, they stay united, they fight together, they really believe in each other, they sacrifice themselves for the good of the company. This happened only partially: me and Gianni are very different people and this was in part good for the company, since having different point of views enriched the company (like all those posts about “diversity” tries to highlight), but on the other side was difficult to handle, since everytime we had to discuss about everything… we seldom agreed on something. Finding a co-founder is harder than finding a wife: if during the process, you have any doubt that the other one is a perfect match for you, then it is not a perfect match for you and you can’t be startuppers together. Honestly I think that this is even more important than founders’ skills: if your co-founders are not top-notch experts, but are very united together, it is far better that class-A-workers that don’t like each other;
  • That are cockroaches: like AirBnB investor said, founders have to be cockroaches, i.e. hard to kill. Whatever bad event happens to them, they’ll have to keep fighting, to never give up, to do all the maximum that they can.
  • That have a clear hierarchy: deciding who is in charge, who takes decisions, who is the boss, who makes what, helps a lot. Otherwise everyone will just think that he is the boss and this can take to endless arguments. For example, in our case, one of the problem was that we were only 2 and if I said NO and Gianni said YES, there was no way in taking a final decision. Technically he was the boss, but I was not that good at obeying :D.
  • That can survive with few money: if you have babies and you need a certain amount of money each month to feed them, then you can’t be a startupper. Being a startupper means earning very few money in the beginning… maybe in the end you become Elon Musk, but at the beginning you earn less than the homeless guy that asks for money in front of your favourite shopping center. So, if you can afford living with little money, you can be a startupper, otherwise you just end working to earn money and being a startupper in the free time… but this is not being a startupper, this is just fooling yourself and your co-founders.
  • That want to be entrepreneurs: being an entrepreneur is a hard life, people really don’t get it. It means stress, responsibilities, deadlines, lots of skills, lots of sacrifices. People usually just think “oh, I’m tired of my job, I’ll open a startup!”, without even knowing what this does mean. If you’re a techie, you have to know that you will have to start thinking about sales, marketing, investments and a lot of other stuff that you just identify as “fluff”: and in the end if you’re the CEO you stop developing and start only thinking about this stuff. Your free time diminishes a lot. You have to take a lot of decisions. You have to sacrifice your own money for the company. You have no guarantee you will earn money at the end of the month. It’s a though life… if you’re not ready for this, don’t even start. In most cases, being an employee is much easier. I have come to the conclusion that whether you born with the mind of an entrepreneur or with the mind of an employee: discover which one is your mind before starting a startup journey!

I’m not saying that we had no one of these points… but surely we lacked some. Looking behind, I realize that maybe we should have looked for additional founders since the beginning.

The sherpa

Find someone that can guide you: a mentor, a tutor, and investor, whoever. Someone that can guide you during all the startup process, from idea to the exit. This is fundamental.

When we started our journey, we were really unexperienced and so we needed someone to guide us in creating a successful startup from our idea. We thought we found that in the support of our local incubator, but it proved to not be that useful. They did not get the potential of our idea and they had to follow so many companies that in the end we got support only once in a while. We decided most of the strategies by ourselves, listening to some advices from our tutors and reading startup posts on Medium or such, but we made a complete mess most of the time. It has not been our fault: we were unexperienced and we really made the best we could, but the best we could was not enough.

Immotionar full body vr startup
Immotionar team, with our mentor Andrea Basso, at EIA, where we won a prize as best technical innovation

In the end, at EIA, we found Andrea Basso, that proved to be a valuable mentor. But it was too late for us to recover.

But… how can you recognize a valid sherpa? Well, he/she:

  • Believes in you and in your idea: understands its potential and believes in your vision;
  • Can create a road map for the development of your startup, from your idea to the selling stage;
  • Is super-skilled: he is smart and competent;
  • Is experienced: if your tutor is 19yo, then it’s not the right tutor. He should have seen lots of startup to fail and lots of others to grow up;
  • Has a great network: knows people that can help you in growing your idea (including investors);
  • Wants to be your startupper-dad: he should want to highlight your errors, to give you courage, to guide you when you’re in trouble, to let you alone when you can handle everything.

Trust me: without a sherpa, you’re just doomed. Being an entrepreneur is like entering a war… and without a sherpa you’re just a lonely soldier without a general and only a toothpick as a weapon.

We made lots of errors in our first times because no one told us that we were doing things completely in the wrong way. A sherpa in the beginning would have surely saved our startup… I’m sure about this.

You can find these kind of people in startup incubators, accelerators or events. But be careful that from experience a lot of people just want to make money FROM startups and not WITH startups. There are lots of super-expensive events that promise you big things just to get your money and nothing else. Be careful.

Product / Product cycle

Build fast, fail fast. Get feedback fast. We failed them all.

We started trying to build a product, but we wanted to deliver a finished product. That’s insane. Just build an MVP and make it available to everyone, so people can give you feedback, can start giving you your first money and so on.

Why what we did was wrong? Well…

  • We started in 2014, where the top VR experience was Oculus DK2. We offered full body virtual reality for tethered and untethered headset! We offered positional tracking for all headsets… we offered room-scale tracking even before the term “room scale” existed (there was no Vive!). We were really ahead of times! But we shipped our product in half 2016, when there was the Vive and various full body VR competitors (like VicoVR). People asked us “why spending $5000 for an ImmotionRoom installation when for $3000 I can have a Vive installation with natural hand interactions?” (price referred to installations including everything, like PC, controllers, keyboards, etc…). If we had shipped at the end of 2014 (when we finished our MVP), we would have surely get a lot of attention from the VR community… and also some investments. In a fast growing environment like VR you have to be super-fast… if you wait, competitors will pop up and kill you.

  • We created a product without knowing if people wanted it: we thought people would be very enthusiastic about it just because we decided that. We never asked a real feedback from the community before ending the development stage and that’s wrong. You have to develop for your customers, not for yourself. You have to develop a product that people want to pay to obtain it. We never cared about that: as techies, we saw a problem (lack of full body VR) and we solved it, without thinking about the fact that our product was for example expensive and difficult to install. We never asked to people how they wanted our product so that it was appealing to them. I want to highlight the fact that you have to build a product so good that people WOULD PAY for it. Getting compliments doesn’t count, only money counts;
  • We didn’t get money: we looked for investments only when the product was “finished” in its first stage…but this meant that we didn’t look for money since the beginning and that caused us to fail.

Furthermore, the project was a bit too ambitious for a little italian team: we wanted to revolutionize virtual reality and this is really hard to obtain if you’re little. In the end it has been Vive that has put the accent to full body VR thanks to its Trackers: UploadVR continues to praise them, continues to say that Vive has taken full body into VR… but we started far before them. But we were too little to trigger a VR revolution… Valve and HTC are just a little bigger…

Immotionar full body vr startup
An ImmotionRoom installation, offering full body VR even with GearVR: awesome from a technical standpoint

Furthermore, we had no clear idea who to sell our idea to. We solved this technical issue, we made a fantastic software solution, without first thinking about its potential market. Again, we were two technical guys, we didn’t know anything about business stuff. We thought that “good products sell by themselves”. No.

So, if you want to make a startup:

  1. Start from a problem.
  2. Detect if there’s a group of people READY TO PAY for having this problem solved. (If you can, ask these kind of people if they’re actually interested through surveys, cold emails, etc…) If there is not, restart from 1.
  3. Find a solution to the problem.
  4. Develop MVP to the solution. Develop a super-crappy thing that shows potential.
  5. Distribute the prototype and gets tons of feedbacks. Push on the marketing side on the customers you identified at point 2. If the product is good enough, try to sell it.
  6. Get feedbacks and made a new version of your product that is better for your customers.
  7. Reiterate from 5.

I know, there are 10000 other websites saying exactly the same things and the reason is because this is true. We discovered it the hard way.

DON’T develop something just because you want to solve a technical issue.

DON’T develop a product with no clear customers.

DON’T develop a product without getting feedbacks from potential customers.

DON’T wait before shipping.

Marketing

This should be included in the previous point: do marketing, do marketing, do marketing at every time.

You can make the best product ever, but if no one knows it, you can’t sell it. So, just spread the word the most that you can: talk about it to friends, to your social followers, to all possible blogs/magazines.

We started doing a little marketing only at the beginning of 2016, so more than year after we developed our first prototype. And started the real marketing only after we developed the product, so in the second half of 2016. That’s really bad. Starting in 2014 we would have had lots of visibility and maybe the interest of some investors, but we completely ignored this. When in the end we started performing them, our marketing efforts proved to be useful: we got a good amount of downloads for our ImmotionRoom solution. You can’t sell without marketing.

Immotionar full body vr startup
A frame of the promotional video about our first ImmotionRoom-compatible game Hit Motion

How to do a good marketing? Well, I’ve not a secret recipe… but for a technical product by Immotionar, you have to:

  • Start immediately: the earlier you start, the earlier you get customers. I know, there’s a voice inside your mind that says “and if they steal my idea?”… but trust me, most of people will not steal your idea: instead they would give you valuable feedbacks or support. Then, even if you don’t talk about your idea, some people in the world will come with the same idea of yours and they will appear as the first ones: Vive full-body VR with trackers is an example of this (I don’t think Valve has stolen our idea…). So, start doing marketing when you start your startup;
  • Be part of the community: go to reddit, twitter, Hacker News and comment other people posts, create valuable content and so on. This will grow reputation of you and your company. If suitable, comment talking about your product or publish posts related to it (but please, don’t become a spammer!), so people will get to know it.
  • Contact press/blogs/etc…: especially when you’ve a big news about your product (updates, releases, etc…). Find the most valuable blogs suitable with your product and contact them. Make press releases (if you don’t know what this does mean, Google it!). Try contacting also youtubers, journalists… create a list of contacts and write the best way to contact them, write which ones are more open to listen from you. Most of them won’t even answer (don’t worry, it’s normal!), but the few that will, will feature you on their website, giving your company visibility (hence downloads) and credibility.
  • Go to events: there you can make people test your product and give you live feedbacks. Furthermore at events you usually meet journalists and it is easier to have press coverage;

    Immotionar full body vr startup
    Participating at WTT 2015, we got a lot of feedbacks, visibility and happiness. It has been hard, but I’ve lots of good memories of those two days. In the picture you can see people making a long queue just to test our product!
  • Have a personal blog: like this one, like Immotionar one. It helps in creating a community and to make your company SEO to get better and better. Lots of downloads of ImmotionRoom came from readers of this blog.
  • Buy paid advertisement: if you can afford it, some paid posts on websites or Facebook targeted ads may help you in skyrocketing your sales.

Someone says that marketing should be 50% of the total time of a startup (50% development, 50% marketing) and that it should start in the moment you write the first line of code of your product. I can’t agree more.

Money

A startup needs money and has to create money. A startup is all about money.

Sometimes Gianni and me laughed about the fact that while lots of american VR companies got bazillions of dollars of investments, we should receive a prize for being able to run a startup with almost zero money. For instance, trailer video for our game Hit Motion has been made with just 30$ to rent the green-screen room:

That’s good, because that meant that we were behaving like cockroaches, but a startup can’t work this way.

First of all, a startup should be focused on making money: if you don’t make money, you can’t succeed. If your product isn’t going that well, start doing consultancies to get the money to make your company to survive. In some way, you have to gain money each month.

That’s because a startup needs money: you can’t survive sparing on everything. You have to buy hardware (especially in VR, where things evolve super-fast). You have to go to events and that are very expensive. You have to buy advertisement. You have to buy consultancies. Even if you don’t have to pay salaries, you need to spend money for your startup. In the last times we were on a 0-money-spree and I can assure you that you can’t have a startup if you have no money to spend. For example, an investor asked me if we would have met at Slush (a startup event in Finland) and I answered no, just because we had not the money to be at that event.

So, if you have no money in your pockets, you can’t run a startup.

About investors, we started looking for them too late (only when we had a product), believing that we would easily find one (we couldn’t be more wrong than that). Start looking for investors whenever you have a MVP: create a pitch deck and go hunting investors. We believed that finding investors was really easy, but again:

  • Looking for investors is a full-time job. Some people needs MONTHS until they find some business angels telling “yes”. Most probably you need a dedicated person only for this. You need screening lots of investments funds, then select the most promising ones for you product, create a perfect pitch deck tailored on them and then go pitching. Remember that each investor listen to something like 600 pitches each year and they just decide if you’re great or terrible in 20 seconds… so maybe you’ve the best idea of the world, but they don’t get it in this little time. You need time and patience.

    Immotionar full body vr startup
    First page of our pitch deck: it’s an awesome photo montage made by Gianni
  • Looking for investors requires money. You need to go pitching in London, San Francisco, Shanghai… and that again requires money for travel expenses. If you have no money, finding investors is really hard.
  • You need someone introducing yourself to investors. Cold emailing investors will just make them ignore you.
  • Don’t trust people promising you investors. I mean, again, there are lots of people that just want to take money from startuppers. These people organize events where they say that there will be investors, but most of the times investors aren’t there or are too few, or are not the investors that you need, etc… Our local incubator promised us to make us meet an investor, but we never seen even a single one. Investors are like girls in discotheques: every saturday night there’s a party where lots of girls are expected, than you enter the dancefloor and you find yourself inside a sausage-party.

Priorities

We are all flooded by posts praising Google free thinking time and reminding us that a lot of great applications has born as side projects. Well, you’re not Google. We spent lots of time in side projects, but no one made success. If your main project has still not established itself, making side projects is just a mess. Please don’t do it. Start doing side projects only when your main project is in a mature stage… otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

Before starting anything, you’ve to answer yourself: how this can help in selling my product? If the answer is “it doesn’t help”, well, then it’s just a waste of time. And in my first 2 startup years, I’ve spent lots of time doing useless things, like game prototypes, useless features for our ImmotionRoom system, useless calls and meetings.

Immotionar full body vr startup
Me making experiments on VR + stationary bikes: I had lots of fun, but all the time spent on this project has been completely wasted, since we never sold it. Furthermore, it had nothing to do with ImmotionRoom and full body VR

Your priority is selling and making money. Everything that is not in this sense is useless. I know, there are lots of things that you want to do, but you’ve not the time, money and energy to pursue them all. So, keep on focusing only on your main product and the features that makes it appealing for buyers. Whatever else you’re making, you’re wasting your time.

If you want to succeed in life, you have to set priorities.

Location

Being in Italy sucks.Taxes are super-high, the startup ecosystem is unripe, investments are little and hard to get, technology is a lot behind the U.S. . When we started our VR adventure, when we met other people from other IT companies and talked to them about VR, they didn’t even know what virtual reality was (and we were talking with IT companies!!).

When I started being on reddit, I was contacted by Joe of UploadVR that told me that our project was interesting. He asked for a demo in San Francisco and when I told him that this would be hard because we were in Italy, he stopped answering me. So sad.

Location matters: I love my country, but creating a startup in the United States is far far easier.

Bad luck

I wrote this as the last reason because I think that everyone has to take its responsibilities… blaming bad luck is always too easy. But every successful person has had luck helping him/her. In some sliding-doors moments, we just got bad luck.

For example, we based our technology on Kinects: Microsoft had just released Kinect v2, that was super-powerful and able to track the body of the user with good accuracy, without the user wearing nothing. Super-great. But after some months of great expectations on this technology, Microsoft surprisingly stopped updating Kinect. Kinect slowly died. People continued making us notice that our tracking was not precise and we didn’t know how to fix this issue (since Kinect tracking technology is closed-source). In the end, people just told us “you use a dead technology” and the word “Kinect” made people to run away. Unluckily there’s still not a valid substitute to Kinect, so we had no way in solving the issue. We were f*cked up.

Immotionar full body vr startup
A typical ImmotionRoom installation: 3 kinects, a virtual reality headset and some PCs.

In 2016, a guy that organized events told us that he was super-interested in making a tour of skiing-and-technology in northern Italy. He wanted to install ImmotionRoom in all major skiing facilities as a marketing installation. That year there was no snow, so few people went skiing, so this project blew away.

Immotionar full body vr startup
Me in Bardonecchia, Italy, while we were testing our system in a public exhibition near a skiing facility: there were really few people… furthermore, our Oculus DK2 went crazy and we had hard times in making people test VR

Some months ago, when Tal Blevins arrived as director of UploadVR, I managed to get in touch with him. He was interested in talking about us, but then the senior editor Ian Hamilton kindly told me that at the moment he “couldn’t see a story” worth to be featured on their website. Reason is: few days before, a solution using Vive trackers for offering full body VR had been released, so they had no interest in talking about a more-expensive and less-precise solution… furthermore using a dead technology like Kinect. Bad timing, bad luck.

And that’s all… there are other dozens reasons why we failed, but these are the main ones. We made enormous errors that led our company to a certain death. It hurted me talking about those ones, but I hope that they will help even a single startupper in not making them again. Please, if you want to create a startup, read all the post-mortem of the cemetery of startups and learn from their errors.

Hope you liked this post and that it has been helpful to you.

Skarredghost

AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...