Starting & shutting down Helping Hands

We wanted to make the Corona better for some people – but it didn't work out

Helping Hands came about during the ongoing Corona crisis. A friend of mine called me, asking whether I had the bandwidth to work on something extraordinary: A platform meant to connect people who cannot or don’t want to leave their houses with volunteers in their area. We built a website, got a bunch of people working on the initiative and even managed to get some press coverage (though arguably on the wrong channels). Sounds good, didn’t work. While it was an interesting experience but on the bottom-line, it is impossible to bank this as a success.

The negatives

We failed to reach our original goal of helping those people who are truly suffering from this crisis and whom we could have addressed. On that journey, we were utterly wrong on a few things, including:

Product-market fit

There simply was no market. There was an abundant supply of volunteers but we could not generate demand for it. We know that there were people who shouldn’t leave their house but did so nonetheless. They were lining up in supermarkets around the corner at least. But we may have overestimated the problem: The majority of people, like my own grandmothers, were already covered by their grandchildren with everything they needed. And maybe the ones still hanging out in the supermarket were willing to take the risk or they just didn’t care whether they got the flu and died a week later. We didn’t know that – we assumed.

I wish I could say that this was valuable learning on finding PMF. I do understand now why founder-people keep talking about it day and night and it did teach me a lesson. However, I doubt that it will keep me from doing the same mistake again. It is tempting to fall in love with an idea and get to work, not looking left or right. And while that type of stubbornness is helpful when it comes to withstanding (ill-informed) criticism, it will kick you if you fail to listen.

What’s a possible cure? Proper marketing would have helped.

Neglecting the importance of marketing

For too long, we stayed in dream-land, a land on which gates have engraved the words “If you build it, they will come”. Whenever I had read or heard of that sentence, I knowingly nodded and said to myself “Of course that’s not how it works”. Indeed, it is not. And we learned that the hard way. Our undertaking was a two-sided marketplace that targeted elderly = offline people as primary beneficiaries. We could have known that and gone into marketing right out of the gate. Instead, we built a product and website which would withstand modern standards of SaaS companies and their customers. But even if we did build something that our primary users would want to use, we would have not appeared in their minds in the first place: We don’t know for sure how these people get to important news but we had sufficient instinct to make it work. But we didn’t and we were too consumed in seeing signups pour in – unfortunately, only from the supply side of the market.

“Hiring” too fast

We failed on the people-side, big time and in many ways. For several days, we ran the platform on our own. As soon as we launched, we got dozens of volunteers offering their help for the platform. We hired in a hurry and within a matter of a day, there was north of 20 people in our Slack workspace. That created not only chaos but also made it hard for us to really pick out those who were pulling their weight. We got side-tracked by pointless discussions, beyond-healthy-conflict of opinions and engagement well below the possible if averaged across the group – although some worked really hard for several days straight.

The biggest pain from this was that these decisions took away all our energy from the ones that worked hard. I felt bad after each pointless battle with people who simply shouldn’t have been introduced to the team in the first place. And I don’t blame it on these people even: In many cases, it was me who made a judgment in haste which caused harm down the road.

Pointless merger discussions

We realized that competition would be leading to a sub-optimal result for the market as a whole. In other words: Winner takes all. We thought that we had something really good on our hands, something that was technically superior to the many other platforms out there. And we still think that we did – at least temporarily –, so we engaged in lively discussions with other platforms offering essentially the same service as we did: Matching people in need with volunteers. It would be reasonable to say that ego got into our ways – all of our ways, not just our own. All platforms were in it for all the good reasons but on their own terms, not someone else’s.

Scaling too early

Our idea was simple: Build a product that can be immediately used across the world once translations are available. In our phantasy, any country with sufficient demand would then just piggyback on the platform, use our infrastructure and simply go out and make it known. This way, the expensive development of appropriate software could be avoided, which is ultimately just a means to an end and will not change dramatically due to locale.

The idea is still a good one but since we couldn’t get the amount of traction in our first market, others could not possibly pick it up with high trust. “Win one market first, then move on to the next." The platforms that are still out there are the ones that focused on one area for a long time. Each country, nay! each region has its own idiosyncrasies and they cannot be neglected. Especially when dealing with an offline crowd.

The positives

It is impossible to sell this as a win but it would be wrong not to mention those things that made this experience worthwhile nonetheless.

Getting to know a few people, for real

When there is no money to be made, it is easy to see who can be trusted. Jan and I were fellow students in the same class but while we knew of each other, we had enjoyed parallel lives up until about one year ago, long after we had graduated. When he pulled me into Helping Hands, it was due to two reasons: The cause itself and the opportunity to work with him. That turned out to be a good thing. I was already aware of his abilities but only through working on Helping Hands, I learned that he is not only driven but also trustworthy and dependable when things turn sour.

It was not only Jan who I got to know better but we were exposed to each other a lot during that time. When we had our first recap call about two weeks ago, we both confirmed that this was not going to be our last dance together. Yesterday we decided to work on a new thing starting now.

Besides him, there were also a few others that stood out. Not because the others were bad but because they were so good. It was great to see how something emerged out of nothing and for what it’s worth, I know a few more people that I can trust with a project.

How it feels to run a company against a wall

The word “company” is not meant in a conventional sense but literally: People working together on an idea. What’s good about it? It didn’t feel good but if this failure means that the next one will be successful, I take it. We didn’t harm any of the helper’s existence by taking away their job. Most startups fail and so did this. But I rather kill this than something that puts whole families in danger.

Learning (again) that the mission matters

We were overwhelmed by all the positive feedback we received on this journey. It was nothing like building a regular company, this one felt different. On the first day of going live, we received more than 50 applications of people wanting to join the team, more than half of which were professional software developers. And they all were relevant. For comparison: In my day job, we are receiving this many relevant applications in a good month. Or to put it differently: I have never said no to a developer without even looking at their portfolio – there were simply too many to go through.

Sure, that doesn’t sound too crazy. After all, we have heard this one before and we know it from ourselves, don’t we? Yes. But still, we were amazed by the feedback we received.

Closing thoughts

There were other highlights and lowlights but those are the ones that stuck with me to this day. I would have wanted a different outcome but here we are. It is not entirely clear whether that happened because of the above or if things would have improved had we pushed a bit longer and harder. It was clear from the beginning that this could not be done in a half-hearted way but we were hoping that some heavy lifting would be sufficient to push it in the right direction.

All I can hope for myself now is that some of these experiences will stick and kick my butt at the right moment next time I am facing a comparable situation. It would be for the better – for myself, the people who buy into the idea and those that are supposed to benefit from whatever we do.