How Past Startup Failure Led Me to Buy an Airstream Trailer

July 13, 2016

5:01 pm

I used to run a tech startup in DC. It was called TappedIn and it was one of the first apps in the social discovery space. I like to say we were ahead of the curve. We ran the startup for over three years, raised money, hired a team, built iOS, Android and web apps., partnered with TEDx events and hit a whole bunch of other milestones.

Until we hit the end of the road.

(Talking about embracing failure at a previous Tech.Co event).

Recovering from Startup Failure

The money ran out as did our patience. Life got in the way and we decided it was best to move on. So, we did. That was mid-2013. I wrote a lessons-learned-from-failure post after the paperwork was done and the heartbreak was over.

And, now, three years later, I am starting another venture. Something completely different. Something I would never have imagined.

Trailer Life

My husband and I launched The Silver Bullet last month. The Silver Bullet is an Airstream rental company. In fact, we are the only Airstream rental company on the east coast. The amazing thing is that just 5 months ago we hadn’t even heard of an Airstream. It started with a casual conversation between Kruttik, (my business partner and husband) and his friend who was complaining about wanting to rent an Airstream for his family but was frustrated with the lack of options. He mentioned casually, “I wish there were more rental options for Airstreams. It would completely change my family’s holiday experiences.”

That set off a light bulb in our heads. We looked at Airstream pictures and were instantly in love. How can one not be? A few days of obsessive photo scanning and reading later, we decided to give it a shot. And here’s where all the lessons from my failed startup experience kicked in.

An Opportunity in the Market

For one, we first found an opportunity in the market and then figured out a way to solve for it. Unlike TappedIn, we didn’t build a solution first and then try to force-fit it on a problem. Our research showed us there were only two Airstream rental companies in the entire country and not a single on the east coast. So, if someone from New York wanted to rent an Airstream, they’d have to tow it (and back) across the country.

Our next step was to test if there was a real market need. We created a bare bones website, put up some Craigslist and AirBnb listings and waited. Over the next few weeks, calls, messages and emails started trickling in. We got inquiries from all over the country – not just the local market. It didn’t stop at inquiries; people were willing to send over payments!

When we had multiple clients willing to book now, we knew it was time to take the next step: buy an Airstream. We spent a couple months obsessively trying to find the right fit. We needed something that would be great for rentals but that was also a wise investment. There were other factors like locations, size, value after depreciation etc that we had to consider. Once we found what we liked, we moved ahead with the purchase decision.

Learning from Past Failure

We didn’t jump into the decision unheeded like we did with TappedIn. We have both kept our full-time day jobs. That allows us not only the ability to bootstrap without relying on raising investment dollars but it also gives us a safety net. If this thing doesn’t work, we won’t fall into an abyss. We are taking risks but these are cautious, calculated risks.

We have a very clear understanding of who our target market is, what they are looking for and why. Our challenge is in figuring out where they are and going to them.

One of our big mistakes with TappedIn was that we built a one size fits all product. It didn’t have a clear story. What does it do? For whom? Why does it matter? We had a slightly different answer to these questions based on whom we were selling to at the moment. Which is why raising money became so hard with TappedIn. Investors heard a different story vs event organizers vs users vs corporate partners.

With The Silver Bullet, we’re tapping into the desires and dreams of an already established community of Airstream lovers. These are people who love the timelessness, beauty and excellence of an Airstream. There is a palpable spirit of adventure in Airstream lovers and they are all engaged with the same story. Our tagline goes, “An Airstream Is An Adventure. Find Yours Now.” It is one story and it resonates with all of our target audience.

We’re taking baby steps, figuring things out as we go along and making sure we’re having fun while we’re at it.

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Zainab loves building digital products. She cofounded and ran TappedIn - a social discovery tool focused on helping people build meaningful relationships - for 3 years and currently heads up the social and mobile suite of products at Fishbowl Marketing. Previously she has managed product design and operations at The College Board, developed enterprise solutions for Capgemini Consulting and worked in ground breaking SAP technology with Satyam Computer Services.

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