I tried, I’ve learned & bounced back: Post Mortem Analysis of Shelterous, Inc

At the end of 2011, I started Shelterous, Inc. when I was still a student at the Harvard Extension School. Shelterous was an airline review website that allows travelers to give their feedback on previous flights to help future travelers book their next flight. It was a wonderful experience that helped me know myself more personally and professionally.
I drove Shelterous for 2 full years, until early 2014 before finding a “regular job” that brings consistent revenue for my newly growing family.

The experience that I gained working on this project can’t be learned in books or acquired in a way other than by actually doing it. It is now time for me to share what I have learned from this experience that makes me a much better marketing professional expert. One of my friend use to say that: “C’est au pied du mur qu’on voit le mieux le mur “It’s when you hit the wall that you get to analyze the wall best”.

  • On Money
    Money is a tool that you have to work with, similar to a screwdriver, or a hammer.
    Looking at getting more of it without a specific purpose, you won’t accomplish a lot. The money you use in your private life and the money that you use for your business require 2 different management skills. Being young and going after my piece of American Dream, I used to look at money as a dollar objective that I wanted to have in my bank account, but it was not from an investing perspective. I wanted to raise a few hundred thousand dollars, maybe millions, but didn’t have a business vision of what to do this money, or even an understanding of what that meant. I was talking to potential partners, and venture capital investors who were evaluating the business and figuring out if the value would be $500K or $5M+, and for me these numbers were astronomical. As a comparison, a few years later, I managed much bigger projects compared to what I was looking at a few years prior.
  • On branding
    Let’s be honest, Shelterous is a terrible name for a business. The tag line: “Make the sky your shelter”, was even worse. People have asked questions, but have never really challenged this idea. I would have been better off having a name like Zupeela, Woopwoop, or anything else with 2 syllables that doesn’t really mean anything at first glance.
    I am not an English native, and at the time, I had been in the US for only a few months. I wanted something that would communicate (1)Peace, (2)Comfort, (3)Home. By applying these words to airline travel, people would attach the company to all these positive attributes. I researched synonyms, and “shelter” appeared to be a good match. The main definition for shelter from the Oxford dictionary is: “A place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger.
    Excited, I went ahead, quickly bought the trademark and paid for a logo design.
    At the time, it didn’t come to my mind that nobody goes to a shelter because they want to. Shelters are not places that you look forward to going. Either you go through homelessness, or your house just got burnt in California or flooded in Louisiana. Shelters are needed, and helpful, but you don’t look forward to living in a shelter, especially when you are planning your vacation.
  • On segmentation and ads
    I was targeting people that were scared of flying, and people that were taking their first flight. There is a good market for these people, and they would most probably go online to do a quick long tail keyword search with keywords that we can predict such as: “probability for a plane to crash”, “planes safer than cars”, etc. When I first launched this project in 2011, I was not comfortable yet with lead generation and paid ads. Paid ads are a great source of leads when used properly and retargeting even better. Increasing traffic and giving visitors a reason to stay on your website will allow you to increase visits, and potentially increase the results of your company. Return on investment in ads must be monitored closely.
  • On mentorship
    Mentors are extremely important, and necessary when you launch your business. Appreciate and listen to your mentors, they’ve been around in your industry more than you have. I personally don’t believe in asking them to sign confidentiality agreements when you establish the relationship. This creates a barrier that is not necessary, you need to create a rapport of trust with your investors. David Cumming, a talented ATLien entrepreneur, regularly posts blogs on this subject.
    Find yourself a mentor that has done what you are trying to accomplish. You don’t want a mentor that has not been in your shoes and succeeded the way you would like to succeed, personally and professionally.
  • On pivot and expansion
    People who gave reviews, did so, soon as they left the plane. I was hoping that they would write their review from the time they hit the tarmac to the time they get out of the plane. In reality, when we land from a long flight, we text or call people, and we want 3 things, (1) getting out of the plane, (1) getting our bags at the carousel as fast as possible and (3) being done with the airport experience.
    Entrepreneurs pivot or fine-tune their model at least 5 times in their first 2 years of business.
    Using more data could have changed the company perspective by providing tangible elements of comparison. My website compared airlines experiences, which was too broad and not subjective for a price sensitive purchase.
  • On team structure and company equity
    A few very talented people have asked to join in order to build the business. As I didn’t know at the time how to value the market potential of a business, I could not build realistic financial projections and understand the early value of the project.
    By partnering with the right talents, you can accelerate the growth of your project. and by sharing equity, you are building a — much — bigger pie. Don’t let pride get in the way of success. Knowing how to give up some control is a managerial skill too.
  • Family
    Family always come first and you need to make sure that they are ready for the entrepreneurship ride, and to what level they will depend on your new business. It can be 50% when both work, 25% when your partner makes more than you, or 75% when (s)he makes less. Being the head of a family doesn’t stop someone from starting a business, as long as the other partner brings this balance and you both know what to expect. Kids don’t eat projects or long term investments, they eat real food that you buy, created from your activity. This is what pushed me to stop trying to pivot Shelterous to another business model, and encouraged me to go back into Corporate America.

There are ways to finance your business such as using credit cards, 401K, savings, but you always need to consider the risk factor and the time it will take to get the company up to speed. Your project won’t be the same in 5 months from now, it should evolve with other people, and this is what I missed. I wanted Shelterous to look like my original business plan when it was supposed to take the shape of the market. Just like what Sun Tzu writes in my favorite 2nd favorite business book after the Bible.

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”- Sun Tzu, The art of war

If the water hit a wall, just enjoy the ride, rise and grow.