Notes From My Failed Startup

I am 20 years old. When I was 18 and a freshman at Pitt I co-founded a company with two friends.

We founded GymBro. GymBro sold protein powder and other nutritional supplements on a subscription basis. It was really, really fun, plus it gave me an excuse not to pay as much attention to my academic studies.

Now, almost a year after we abandoned the idea I am ready to reflect. My time spent working on GymBro was an invaluable learning experience. It is interesting to think about what we did at the time, and how I would approach similar situations now. There is no better way to retain what you have learned than to write it down.

That is the goal here.

Have a Plan

“Business plans are old school and a waste of time”, that was the general sentiment I found in my research before launching GymBro. My co-founders and I took this to heart.

We had no plan, no guide, no road-map. We were three college guys with an idea and that was about it. Looking back on it now, this is where we failed most.

It may be cool to start up a company with only an idea. But if that is the case then there is no company. Without a plan an idea is just that, an idea.

GymBro was doomed from the start. We never took the time to formulate how we wanted the business to run, how it would execute day to day, and most importantly how it would grow.

We didn’t need a 30 page business plan, we simply needed a plan.

Build a Foundation

Without a foundation (technical, organizational, legal, etc.) any idea, minimum viable product, or business is screwed. This was the second fatal flaw (of many) that we encountered at GymBro.

We had no building blocks in place to support or grow our business.

Technologically we had no advantage over our competitors. We barely even had a functioning website. We rushed through the process of building our online store and that hurt us in the long run.

Organizationally we never assigned roles to one another. No one knew what there responsibility was. Frequently the three of us were unsure what we could be doing to help the company grow.

The three of us thought we could sprint past the basics and end up at the finish line. Ultimately, the opposite happened – every time the business took one step forward we would end up moving two steps back.

Without the proper foundation in place we were doomed from the start.

Provide Real Value

It is surprisingly easy to get people to give you money. It is surprisingly difficult to get them to do it again.

GymBro aimed to generate monthly, recurring revenue from customers.

This never happened.

Customers did not want their supplements delivered to them on a monthly schedule. Some preferred bi-monthly, tri-monthly, or even quarterly. At GymBro we had no way to letting customers choose their subscription frequency.

Instead, we provided the one option that we could program into our website – a monthly subscription. After half a year of stagnant business we all realized that we were doing something wrong.

We were not providing the customer with what they wanted. We were not giving them any real value.

We could convince people to order from us once, but after that they were gone. We did not give them a reason to come back – we did not provide more value then our competitors.

In order to retain customers you need to provide extreme value.

Peter Thiel writes about this in detail in Zero to One.

Act on Feedback

At GymBro users frequently communicated to us the importance of quick shipping. We listened, sort of.

In retrospect, we were extremely fortunate to have such vocal and open customers. We had an amazing opportunity to learn exactly what our customers wanted. Sadly we did not execute on this.

We listened when customers talked. We took a genuine interest in hearing what they had to say. Ultimately though, we did not act upon the information they provided.

When the people who give you money give you feedback you should do something. I wish we had put more time, money and effort into taking action on our customers feedback.

Making progress is difficult. You are only shooting yourself in the foot if you do not listen to the people who generate your revenue.

More on GymBro

Even though we went out of business we still had fun doing it! Here is more information about GymBro, including our application to a startup accelerator in Pittsburgh, a progress report, and a newspaper article.

About the author

I'm Zach Shefska, welcome to my personal website. I'm currently working on CarEdge. I like to travel, write, and make pottery.