Today, I am announcing that I am shutting down my startup: Govpinion.com! Govpinion was a social entrepreneurship venture which I started 2 years ago in Morocco with the goal of driving more transparency and accountability from the government and the public administration. It consisted of a web portal that allowed citizens to review and share their feedback about public officials and public institutions in the country.
In this post, I’d like to share the reasons why I am ending this chapter of my life but I also want take a little time to reflect back on the journey and share some of the lessons I learned from this experience.
Govpinion was a project that I bootstrapped and personally financed. I was hoping to scale and grow it to a certain level in terms of audience size in order to start monetizing it and putting it on a path to self-sustainment. While the primary goal was social impact, this would only be possible if a sustainable monetization model was in place for the longer term. The monetization strategy was intended to be a mix of Sponsorships/Advertising and subscriptions for Data/Insights (election polls, market trends,…). From day one, the vision was to prove the model in one country and then scale it beyond that to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa before venturing to other parts of the world.
Well, I failed at hitting those objectives. While the site got some traction, it did not reach the necessary threshold to be able to generate enough revenue to sustain it and the cash I had invested in Govpinion to start and grow it ran out. In Startup land, when you run out of cash, you die so Govpinion is officially dead. So lesson #1, whatever you do, make sure to validate your revenue assumptions early and don’t run out of cash!
When I started working on this project, I naively believed that if I built it they will come but the reality of things is that they never do or very rarely do, It took me a couple of months getting a first beta version of the platform out but getting people to use it was a whole other story. I had not spent enough time talking to the target users, understanding their motivations and validating my assumptions. So once the beta was live, I was in a position to validate those assumptions, well, some were right (people did feel that this was a good initiative and many supported it…) but others assumptions were wrong, I was expecting a lot more people to participate and share their reviews and feedback about the public institutions and officials on the site. In retrospect, I could have gotten to that conclusion faster had I engaged with my target audience sooner, created the right incentives for them to participate and designed certain workflows on the site differently from day 1. So lesson #2, before you write one line of code, talk to your target customers, don’t just talk to them, hang out with them, get to know them, understand their emotions, their habits, the problems they are facing, how they are solving them today…. You will drastically improve the probability of building the right solution for their problems.
The good thing about getting a product out in the hands of your target audience is that you start getting feedback on it. I started getting a lot of different feedback but some of the recurring themes were around the need for a more comprehensive directory of public institutions and public officials, the need to launch an Arabic version of the site, and the need for a better site design. I decided that the top priority was to extend the directory of public officials and public institutions on the site. This was a labor intensive and time-consuming process to identify all the public institutions in the country, find their address, their phone numbers, a picture… Same applies to public officials, finding their photo, the start date in their current role, their past roles…. And then inputting all this data into the site. Needless to say this was something that consumed too much of my time initially before I eventually recruited Aziza to join the Govpinion team to help with this effort. Even though the number of public officials and public institutions available for site visitors to review was increasing and the number of people visiting the site was increasing, the conversion rate of those visitors (the percentage of site visitors who submit a review) was very low. This brings me to lesson #3, define your primary KPI, the thing that matters the most for your business and focus your energy and time on improving it and only focus on that, the rest should be a secondary priority. I had a vision for what the site should be like, and part of that vision was to have a comprehensive directory of public officials and institutions. In addition, this is something that users were asking for anyway and so I continued to work towards that vision when I should have focused on getting more people to review the existing institutions and officials present on the site. Optimizing and maximizing the conversion rate should have been the primary and only goal before looking to drive more traffic.
While Aziza took the lead in growing the site directory, I continued fixing bugs on the site and started working on the new version of the site working on the multi language support and the new design to facilitate site navigation and the review user experience . In the meantime, Nada joined the team to help with the marketing efforts as did Mehdi to help with some of the development work especially with the Google map integration. With the team on board, our throughput significantly improved, this brings me to lesson #4, having the right team in place sooner rather than later is critical so take the time to pull together the right founding team from day one or find ways to be in a position to recruit the right team quickly.
Eventually, in September of last year, we launched the new version of the site with much improved site performance, better SEO, a cleaner UI and site navigation, geo-location of all public institutions and a much larger directory of institutions and officials (thousands of public officials and institutions). Most importantly, we launched the first phase of the multilingual support on the site:
I also had to migrate the site from a shared hosting provider to a dedicated server on AWS as the site was consuming a lot more CPU and memory with the redesign and I started getting unfriendly notifications email from the hosting company. The good news though is that all this work paid off as we started seeing a significant increase in traffic and improvements in the conversion rate of visitors. This was exciting time!
I also shifted my time and energy to PR and marketing to spread the word about the site. This led to over a dozen articles in the national press both online and in print about the site and we started getting invitations for radio appearances on national radio. We also starting executing on a content and social media strategy, we started publishing articles about the most common administrative procedures, infographics about common social issues, caricatures about the issues of the day… to engage our social media followers and help drive more traffic to the site. It did help engage our social media followers but it did not significantly increase the number of reviewers and reviews submitted on the site. This brings me to lesson #5, having a social media strategy is important but making sure that it is aligned with the KPIs you are trying to impact is critical, if not it is detrimental as it could be a time sink and that time is better spent focused on things that will drive the KPIs.
We also did all kinds of things that in retrospect, were off strategy, as an example, we started tracking all articles in the press about the top public officials and institutions and cataloguing them appropriately within the site, we then surfaced all the articles in the press about that public officials or institutions directly on their page. At the time, it sounded like a great addition to the site and part of that “grandiose vision” I had but in retrospect, this was a distraction which consumed a significant amount of time and later caused some site performance issues leading to retiring the capability.
On January of this year, Govpinion was nominated as one of the 5 finalists for the Best Web Application of the year in Morocco in the Maroc Web Awards. I also used this opportunity to travel down to Morocco to be present for the event and meet the rest of the team for the first time. Building a startup is hard, running a virtual startup and collaborating with a remote team is even harder especially being in different time zones and focusing on target customers who live thousands of miles away from you does not make it easy either. This brings me to lesson #6, maximize your probability of success by being physically close to your team and your target customer.
While we did not win the award for the best application of the year, attending the event was a great opportunity to meet with many folks I had only interacted with virtually in the past. We also used that opportunity to spend time together as a team and did some activities together including volunteering at a local orphanage and going horseback riding for example.
During that week, we organized three different events in partnership with Fikra.ma which attracted hundreds of people in total between Casablanca and Rabat and a special event at Ecole Mohamedia d’Ingenieurs to discuss the topic of being a Citizen in the age of the Web 2.0 and drive awareness about Govpinion. The success of the events highlighted to me the need to think about Govpinion beyond just the site. Driving social change and creating more transparency and accountability in the public sector is not something that can be accomplished through an online platform alone, that is just one of piece of the puzzle and for Govpinion to be successful, it needed to be based locally in the market and it needed to be community championed and driven.
One of the other factors that also became clear to me is that the true potential of Govpinion could be unlocked if we were able to create a two way dialogue between public officials/institutions and the community. During my time in Morocco, I held meetings with a deputy in parliament and with the Ministry responsible with the relations with the civil society to share what Govpinion was doing and explore ways to collaborate. We discussed many things but one of the most promising ideas was to enable public officials to hold office hours on the site and enable citizens to have a live video chat with them directly. Another was to enable them to submit questions directly to public officials for responses. In addition, when evaluating the numerous daily emails I have been receiving for the last months targeted to public officials, it became clear that people wanted a way to communicate with public officials and they had a need around administrative procedures and guidance around issues they were facing. This was the real core problem that Govpinion needed to solve for it to be successful. This highlighted the need for us to pivot in a new direction.
At that point I started facing the decision on what to do next, it also became clear to me that running Govpinion on evenings and weekend was not sustainable. Yes, I did not have mention that over the course of this post but while running Govpinion, I also held a highly demanding full time job and so running Govpinion was my second full time job, sacrificing personal time to build it. I often worked 80-100 hours per week and that was just not sustainable forever.
Also, I did not have the intention to relocate to Morocco to run Govpinion in this new direction and the funding I had allocated for the startup was running out. I did consider raising some funds but if I am going to take money from an investor then I would want to be fully dedicated to the project and be highly confident that I can provide the investor with the expected return. This would require me to focus 100% of my time on it and relocate to Morocco. This was not a choice I was ready to make at this stage and so it was over. Getting to this realization and accepting this reality did not happen over time, it really took me weeks and months of denial, Govpinion after all was my baby and I had spent so much time working on it that it was hard for me to just let it go. Well, today, I have come to accept that so once again Govpinion is officially dead.
I will likely be open sourcing all the code for anyone who would like to use it, I am also happy to support and advise anyone who would like to tackle this problem. I would encourage anyone who would want to do that to follow the following advice:
- Create a community through live events, partnership and content… with local champions in cities across the countries, the website is just a small part of the puzzle, the community is at its center
- Create a two way dialogue between the public administration and citizens, most people want their voices heard, I have no doubt that this will help put the initiative on the map, the model will need to be proven at small scale first before expanding but if you can get the higher ranked public officials such as the ministers to start hosting live Q/A with the community on the site, start getting officials responses from public institutions to questions from the community then you can expect some real traction
- Create a forum for the community to collaborate and help each other, given the number of people who were emailing us directly and asking us all kinds of questions, this is an unmet need that can activate the participation of the community and help from an SEO and traffic perspective
- Provide a directory of public officials and institutions like we did, a lot of people found value from the site from this alone being able to get the contact information of public institutions or finding out where they are located on Google map. We built a fairly comprehensive list of public officials and institutions but in reality, we were just scratching the surface, tackling this effort in partnership with the public administration is key
- Build the platform in Arabic first and get ready to extend it to embrace mobile (think smartphone but also feature phone: SMS-based)
- Build mechanisms for monetization from day one, a potential approach would be to create a service to provide legal advice for administrative procedures or problems that can be activated through a network of lawyers that pay a referral fee, another could be to build a premium service to help advise and prepare the right documents for administrative procedures on behalf of clients (these assumptions would need to be validated)
I also want to take a moment to share a special thanks to everyone who supported me in this journey especially my other half who continuously supported me and encouraged me in this journey. I also want to share a special thank you with the Govpinion team (Aziza, Nada and Mehdi) for all their hard work and their trust in me following me in this adventure.
Special thanks to the Govpinion community and all the supporters all along as well as to all the followers on Facebook and twitter, a special thanks also goes to our partners at Fikra.ma and of course to Marouane.
This was a great learning experience for me and I hope that by sharing these details, others would benefit from it. There is no doubt to me today that I am passionate about building startups and that this is something I will continue doing, and with two failed attempts behind me now, hopefully the third time will be the charm :). I encourage you to follow me on twitter or Facebook if you want to stay updated on my future adventures. I will likely be pursuing a new venture focused on digital advertising measurement, if this is a space that you are passionate about and you feel you have the technical skills to build the next big thing then reach out to me.