I’ve been meaning to pen down my thoughts for awhile now, but only now does it feel like a better time to do so. Many are curious to learn what happened to Hello Roaming, and I feel that it’s about time I shared.
For the past year, Hello Roaming has been my pride and identity. I’ve always wanted to start my own thing, and I thought this was my moment. As a product manager I’ve build a couple of products before but to me, Hello Roaming was my first real startup. The first startup that made money and was a real business.
And as a co-founder, shutting it down has been a tough pill to swallow. The best I could do to describe how it feels is a lot like watching your dreams drift further and further away from you until they fade into thin air.
Today is my birthday, and I think birthdays make for a good excuse to begin a new chapter in life. For me, this article is meant to be the final page of my Hello Roaming chapter.
More importantly, I want to share the 6 biggest lessons I’ve learnt from coming out of it all. This journey is worthwhile if at least 1 person learns and benefits from it.
Here is my story.
When we started Hello Roaming, our vision was to solve the inefficiencies of all of travel’s nitty-gritty — the small instances that stresses you out on a trip—stuff like finding a local prepaid SIM card when you land.
We wanted to make travel communications cheaper and a whole lot easier by offering a web shop where you could buy foreign SIM Cards of the country you’d be travelling to at affordable prices and have it shipped to your home before you boarded the plane. It was a simple plug-and-play solution.
With a web app running, it wasn’t long until we begin seeing results. We had decent revenue, happy customers, and were solving a significant enough problem for people.
People wrote good feedback about our service, and during those moments, we were over the moon. We had our fair share of ugly days when nothing worked out the way we wanted it to. All in all, we were in business, had money in the bank, and happy. We thought we had validated our idea and that feeling was pretty darn good.
Lesson 1: Winning small battles doesn’t mean you’ll win the war.
You know reality TV shows like American Next Top Idol or MasterChef where the ultimate winner is usually not the person who gets the most ‘best photos of the week’ or the ‘best dish of the week’? I remember watching MasterChef Australia Season 2 thinking Marion Grasby would win the season because she pretty much won most of the weekly challenges. Instead, the meekest one, Adam Liaw won.
Don’t let the early metrics distract you. Startups are hard work and they leave no room for resting in your laurels. Be vigilant and humble at all times; no matter how much you raised or how much praise you’re getting from your customers. Because winning small battles doesn’t mean you’ve won the war. It’s far from over.
About 3 months in, our sales began to stagnate. At this point, we ramped up our hustle and begin working harder than ever before. We began pitching to VCs, pivoting to B2B, making plans to increase our ARPU, and heavily increased our media spend in hopes to grow. We dashed towards every direction we could think of.
Alas, we realised the root of our issue: we couldn’t find more customers who saw value in our product.
Lesson 2: Don’t overestimate your market share.
Delivery is a numbers game, and it was to our disadvantage that our product only appealed to a small pool of people. It was expensive to find more of them, and we were weren’t making much per transaction (reselling SIM Cards barely makes you anything). To add on to that, we found out that our target market only travelled about 2–3 times a year on average. So we had a combination of a small market share, high CAC, low margin, and an average recurring rate.
If we pivoted enough we could have been worked as a small business, but it was by no means the making of a $100 million Internet company. To succeed in our plight at the margins we were making, we would probably need dozens of millions of users. Which brings me to my next point:
Lesson 3: It’s all about the business model.
Many first time entrepreneurs’ aspire to take a successful model from the West and build it for the local market, an ‘Uber for X’, an ‘Airbnb for Y’, a ‘Classpass for X’. But here’s the truth.
Don’t follow the Silicon Valley way where you build, get a lot of users first, get funding, then think about revenue later. It doesn’t work that way here (Southeast Asia). — Cheryl Yeoh
Silicon Valley prioritises growth over revenue, much seen in on-demand economy companies like Uber, Homejoy and Airbnb.
It’s not enough to have every aspect of your product idea nailed down. It has to make money. In this part of the world, it’s not the coolest, sexiest ideas that wins, it’s those that can actually make money.
This is one lesson that I have personally corrected myself time and time over.
Lesson 4: Go leaner.
You are probably lean, but my challenge is for you to go leaner. In hindsight, we could have easily created a store on Shopify and began selling the travel SIM Cards, which would have took us about 2 weeks as compared to 3–6 months to develop a custom web-app to handle the online transactions.
When starting out, the primary most important thing is to validate your business idea. Nothing else matters at this point. Don’t build for scale. Build for what you need now, because you won’t know what’s going to happen a month from launch. Things will change very quickly. Use existing pieces of software to validate, and move from there.
If you’re going to fail, fail fast. We could have failed in 3 months instead of 10. We could have saved a lot of time, money and heartache.
Lesson 5: Make speed a habit.
Corporate processes (read lengthy paperwork, procurement and budget approvals, etc.) will not work well in a startup, and startup processes (or rather the lack of processes) will not work in corporate setting. Don’t assume they can be used interchangeably. The result of this is an inefficient, slow, and clunky machine.
Also spend less time debating features and more time validating. When starting out, spend every minute validating instead of bickering on how things should be ‘done properly’. This is not yet the time to optimise.
Lesson 6: Hire the right person for the job.
Read hire, not borrow. In the pursuit of building successful companies for spin-offs, many venture builders and corporates often forget that team and culture is everything. Beyond great human resource, having a great functioning and dedicated team adds meaning and purpose to the business.
Magic happens when you hire dedicated people for the job, not borrow people for the job on an as-needed basis.
If you must ‘borrow’ people for the job, look for founder/market fit — find founding members who are passionate about the idea; someone who can see themselves working on this product for the next decade. Because serving a customer base you don’t like is one of the worst feelings in the world. It is like not liking fish but having to eat/smell/taste it everyday. Eew.
I have learnt that the best startup team members are those with an entrepreneurial mindset. A person who views themselves as an employee makes everyday decisions and take on challenges very differently from someone who is entrepreneurial and sees themselves as an owner. Not everyone is fit for a startup.
Long story short, we ran out of money. Our new roadmap was a mesh of travel comms, fin-tech and travel currency. And being borrowed resources ourselves, we realised we weren’t the right people to bring Hello Roaming forward. With no money left to hire the right team, we knew we hit the end of the road.
So after 10 months, on Friday 26th August 2016, we decided to wind Hello Roaming down and officially cease operations on 1 October 2016.
Even as I close the Hello Roaming chapter, I’m also truly excited for what lies ahead. I owe it to myself to recover quickly and move on and up onto bigger things.
To everyone who have lent a hand in building Hello Roaming, thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for supporting our humble mission and believing in us. What a journey it has been.
Perhaps the best gift this year for myself is learning that failing isn’t losing, and it isn’t all that bad. If anything, failing gets you closer to the right thing. The startup game is about learning until you get it right. After all, you only need to get it right once.
Written by Serene Gan, this article was originally published on Medium. This article represents the writer’s own thoughts, and may not represent the views anyone else associated with Hello Roaming. Share this article to get this story in front of more entrepreneurs.