Day 12 – Don’t give up

“No, we don’t need any internet here” and then silence on the other end. Another unsuccessful attempt to pitch our business idea failed. The day was coming to an end and we didn’t sign up a single client.

What the hell am I talking about?

In one of my previous episodes, I mentioned a business that I started about 15 years ago when I was still in college in Belarus.

I self-taught myself to code doing a website for the clothing company my father worked for. They hired some other company and redid the whole website about half a year after I released it, to make it look more professional. I was upset and desperately needed another project so I could keep expanding my coding skills.

My hometown Brest (Belarus) is known as clothing manufacturing center for the whole post Soviet union space. There are more than 300 officially registered brands that produce clothing! The main markets are Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and pretty much all other Russian speaking countries.

The people would travel by train from Russia with big black bags and then hire a taxi driver at the railway station to take them to those manufacturers so they could purchase the products and then resell those back home.

As you can imagine this process was quite dangerous at times because they would need to travel on the train with a pile of cash, sometimes for days if coming from distant parts of Russia.

Remember that was about 15 years ago, there were no credit cards. Not in Russia or Belarus anyway. Even the cell phone was a big deal at the time.

Essentially there were some criminal groups that wanted to take all that cash. Pretty wild times. I’ve heard stories like that every other month.

Then one day it hit me. What if I create a website that would gather all the clothing manufacturers in one place so people from other countries could easily find all the contact information and arrange orders before they come.

There was nothing like that at the time as the whole industry was pretty much underground. Huge steel doors with small bells and video cameras were the norm.

The next day I run the idea by my college friend Denis and he agreed to go with me and pitch the idea once we have some sort of demo.

That was all I needed! Since I already knew a bit of HTML / CSS and PHP I went straight to work. Within a few weeks I had a demo. I didn’t want to pay for hosting or buy a domain name before I knew the idea was sound. I was still in college and every dollar was very needed for drinks and other important stuff like that.

Side note – at the time to get a domain in .by zone I had to travel to Minsk (the capital), present all the docs, passport and some other documents in person!

I decided to put my demo (basically a collection of HTML files) on CD disc. A brilliant idea! 🙂

Once the demo was done it was time to move to the most important part – pitching the idea to the manufacturers. The plan was to charge them $10/moth to be a part of the project.

Denis and I assembled a list of manufacturers that we would target first and went on the road trip. Almost immediately we hit a problem. Like I mentioned before the whole industry at the time was pretty much underground, no outsiders were welcomed. Especially college kids, where one of them looked suspiciously like the government undercover agent with glasses and suitcase (we wanted to look professional you know). I with I had a photo take at the time so you guys could feel it 🙂

Here is how the process looked like pretty much – we would come to the huge steel door, ring a small bell and wait. Many times there was no reply at all. Later on, we figured they were also using video cameras to tell who was at the door.

In rare cases when we did get a reply, it was similar to this: “Who is this? What do you need? Internet what? We don’t need any internets in here!” and then silence again.

After visiting about 20 companies with the same results we were pretty discouraged. The idea wasn’t so great after all…

Before calling it a day we decided to hit the last company that was located close to Dan’s house. When we approached the usual steel door we noticed a guy who was smoking nearby.

We rang the bell and nothing happened, we rang again and nothing.. We were about to turn around and leave when the guys spoke to us: “What are you guys looking for?”

I believe he was the first person who actually spoke to us that day!

Of course, we didn’t know who the guy was, but we pitched him anyway. It was sort of automated after the past 20 attempts to talk to the steel doors.

After we were done with our pitch the guy said: “Hmm.. Lets come in inside so you can demo it to me on my computer”

Whaaaat??!@ We got in! With shaky and sweaty hands I fiddled with the CD-ROM and did a quick demo. I was quite surprised to see my site on a bigger monitor and it was not what I expected it to be. Of course, I didn’t do any tests besides my personal computer, I didn’t even know there could be a difference in presentation. Luckily for us, the guy didn’t seem to care.

He looked at the site for a few seconds and said “How much? $10? I’ll give it a shot”, pulled out a wallet and gave us $10. BOOM!

I can’t describe all the feelings that went through my head at the moment, but that was the motivation we needed to continue pushing through. By the way, that guy turned out to be the director and owner of the company!

Within a few weeks after that day we signed up 10 more companies. The process was going much smoother now. That one manufacturer that said yes turned out to be pretty well-known in the space, so others didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity.

We found the secret key to those huge steel doors with little ring bells and video cameras! We learned magic words as well as not to spill any details until we see the decision maker. Turned out most of the time the doors were operated by people who were not even remotely in a position to make any decision (quick tip: when you pitch something, always look for the decision maker!).

Fast-forward 15 years – we are now one of the leading woman’s clothing online stores in the country, employing more than 50 people and sending tens of thousands of products each month all over the world.

All of that started from the guy who said “Yes”. Think about it next time you hear someone pitching new idea to you, maybe your “Yes” will change the world one day.

In the future, I’ll be describing some technical challenges that we faced and some tricks that we learned in the process. It should be pretty clear that we didn’t have any money to spare and didn’t have any investors when we started (hell, we didn’t even know anything about startups, investment rounds etc). Because of that I, as the technical co-founder, had to learn how to be creative and save every dollar.

As the result of different performance optimizations and server configs tuning, we were able to serve around 6 million pageviews a month on a $40 VPS.

Stay tuned (subcribe below), it’s a technical blog after all, right?

P.S. You can visit the store here.

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