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My social network dream, five years later

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Mai Le

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Very few people know about this story of mine. These narratives are indeed the stories less told, just because, who’d like to publicise their failures, right?

 

It was my first shot at entrepreneurship when I was still a final year student at LSE. I remembered a late night in December 2013 vividly. That night, I surfed the web extensively, trying to improve my fashion senses. I struggled to find any fashion influencer that resonated well with me and my torso. Because I’m a petite Asian, what looked great on a Caucasian tall female model did not seem to suit me. I had this lightbulb moment. What if I built a social network that connected people who had similar physical features with each other, who auto-follow each other based on how well their attributes match. In this way, everyone finds inspiration in genuinely alike people and gains popularity purely based on their physical characteristics and fashion tastes, not by boasting an unrealistic lifestyle. For this, I had an idea for this multi-layered matching algorithm that I immediately jotted down.

 

Putting in context, in 2013, Instagram was much less prevalent and certainly not the sophisticated engine it is today. Many people still view it as a photo editing app than a social network. At that time, I considered this idea of mine relatively unique, and indeed with the ego of a youngster who hasn’t stepped into the real world, I took pride in the matching algorithm I invented. I was so excited that I stayed up the whole night with racing thoughts, thinking about all the possible aspects of the business and improving the algorithm sketch to be more sophisticated.

 

“Project Bold, it is”. I thought to myself about naming this world-changing application. “Just imagine how many people would be using this. The problem is so relatable. The potential is endless.” I enthusiastically claimed to myself.

“It must be a social network. It must be an app. Let’s do mobile-first, let’s start with iOS”. Ideas showered me like the summer rain.

 

Just thinking back to how naive I was then make me now chuckle. I did everything that a first-timer could do wrong: Following buzzwords at the time like “social network” or “mobile app”, believing that others will also desire it just because I desire it, solely focus on scale and not have a clear strategy of how to monetise the application; venturing into an area where I as the founder has no expertise in, and stupidest of all, start with an iOS app which is incredibly expensive and time consuming-to-build MVP.

 

Yet, these are unbeknown to me as I was blinded by my infatuation of what this project could become. I was so convinced that one will succeed as long as they have the “passions” that I would get far simply because I work hard, focus on it, and give all my available resources. I was so carried away by Project Bold that I dropped everything, including my study and all of my savings and my time for months on end to work on it. I even wrote an incredibly naive blog (now deleted, of course) with so much pride about the start of my entrepreneurial journey and how I will retire by 32 (!). Cringeworthy.

 

Like many other inexperienced start-up people, I made the most obvious and popular mistake: believing that throwing money at problems will fix them. Not knowing how to build, I put all of my savings on the line on a quest to find the best iOS developer for my budget. I remembered interviewing a few freelancers online, one of whom told me “To be honest, your feature list is too long. You need to cut this down. Your algorithm is too complicated. It’s better to start with something simple first then build up from there.” I shrugged it off and thought he could not grasp the scale of this project potential and my “superior” algorithm. Knowing what I know now, I should have indeed hired this person.

 

Long story short, I ended up hiring a Chinese developer who turned out to be a hacker on the Chinese Government’s blacklist. He posed several delays to the project as the Government raided and confiscated his machines and equipment with the source code. Having paid a significant amount upfront via the freelancing site, I tried to dispute this situation with the site to no avail. It took him another six months to finally deliver some code, an incomplete product, and he did not agree to refund me. Despite the delivery, I was not able to use any of these codes. As a programming illiterate person, I was not confident that I could identify if he did inject any malicious code in the final delivery – he’s a hacker, after all.

 

So project Bold, my social network dream, folded then, brought down with it a lot of my own money, time and emotional frustrations dealing with a wrong hire. While it was a great lesson, I almost forgot about this until today.

 

Today it strikes me how far I’ve come compared to 5 years ago. I have built, entirely by myself, a social network product, perhaps not on purpose.

I didn’t even realise it was a social network at first until this moment. For me, it was just a simple response to popular requests of a community. The back story is that I have a pay-it-forward project called Cover Letter Library, which is a community of 1,000+ members contributing over 210 pieces of verified successful cover letters and interview experience. I check in with the members frequently for their feedback on how to serve them and their needs. The two most popular requests are:

  1. While CLL has helped the members to get the internship and job offers, assistance for the period they get the offers are highly demanded. This includes materials that support the members who have got offers in the financial industry to train themselves before the internship or job, such as real analyst training courses, courses for qualification exams, and/or financially technical books.
  2. Ability to interact with peers going through the same process and others in the community.

Having received the feedback, I get down and dirty coding up this sister site, an extended product, for the members, by myself. After 5 years, my coding ability has somewhat improved: I’m now able to build stuff without external help or paying someone else to do it. Although programming is never “cool” as movies make it out to be, more than half of the time is frustrations and a perpetual state of cluelessness as you don’t know why stuff doesn’t work; and even when it works, you may also not know why. I did indeed recede to a cave to build the product; there are times I did not leave the house for over 10 days. If my friends read this, if I did not answer your messages and went MIA entirely in the last 6 months, pardon me, and now you know why.

 

Now I’ve just launched the sister site called Next Analyst (nextanalyst.com) which features exactly what the members ask for. Over 100 hours of real analyst training video courses, 215 finance technical books, and more importantly, a Facebook-like social network embedded within it, as well as a forum feature so members can interact with each other on an individual level (add friends/ private message/post updates or photos/forums) and support each other publicly on forums, interest groups and course groups.

 

For the past 6 months, I have stayed up most of these nights past 3-4 am, mainly fixing bugs. There was a bug that cost me 2 days to figure out a few weeks ago. This blog came about because the moment I finally fixed the bug also ignited an overwhelming excitement past midnight, which suddenly brought my memory to that night in December 2013 with Project Bold and the person who told me to cut the feature list. While I’m now trying to cut down the complications for Next Analyst by reducing most features to the barebones, my goodness, he was undoubtedly correct. I even created a group called “Bug reporting and Ideas to improve” on Next Analyst, so people can tell me what to fix.

 

In the dark, at that moment, my face lit up a smile. I can now build what I, the younger version of me in 2013, only fantasised about. That makes me feel great. Instead of spending the nights dreaming in excitement like such a naive youngster, I spend these nights doing things, fixing bugs and creating a better product. More importantly, I’m building something because people have asked me for it, not because I hypothesise that it may be a good “relatable” idea.

 

While Next Analyst has just been recently launched, not for long, I am blessed to welcome positive reception and a large number of members joining. What’s most precious to me is the realisation that there has been a great progression in my technical ability and my sober view of reality. Such realisation is rewarding in itself, coupled with the fact people use what I build. Five years later, from that night in 2013, I built my once-failed social network dream and affirmed my faith that nothing is ever too late.

Image Credits: Graphics by @dooder.

Written by Mai Le

My name is Mai. I am originally from Vietnam. After my university years at LSE, I worked in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. After a wonderful time there, I started several of my own business as well as helping others on theirs. I've always been building communities and businesses for as long as I can remember, and absolutely thrilled to see others enjoy what I've built.

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