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Zainab Zaki Reflects on Startup Failure and Prioritizing Product-Market Fit

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Sometimes it’s hard to remember that startup failure occur more than startup successes. At our Tech Cocktail Book Launch event in DC this past Tuesday, Tech Cocktail cofounder Frank Gruber reminded the crowd that only about one in ten startups make it. Gruber, whose book Startup Mixology came out this past week, invited local DC entrepreneurs to share the stage with him and talk about some of the topics that are covered in the book. Zainab Zaki, who served previously as the COO and cofounder of now-deceased startup TappedIn shared the lessons she learned from that failure and stressed the importance of finding product-market fit.

“The biggest lesson I took away was an extreme – like, almost punishing – focus on product-market fit. I think we spent a really long time spinning our wheels doing a lot of brainstorming, creating ideas, developing wireframes, and talking to tons of people,” said Zaki. “I think we didn’t pay enough attention on ‘who’s gonna buy this?’…’who’s using this?’…on product-market fit.”

TappedIn was a way for people to connect with people they’d most likely relate to (whether it was through their values or goals) prior to an event, and hopefully lead to meaningful relationships in the long-run. But despite some interest in and merit for the concept, the company never really hit it off the ground. “I think we built a solution and were looking for a problem to solve.” After spending three-and-a-half years working on the company, they eventually called it quits.

“Focus on the right metrics,” said Zaki when asked about what companies should to get traction. “The big problem that we had was: what should we focus on? Should we focus on people coming to our website? People who are clicking the app? People who are downloading the app…?”

According to Zaki, had they focused on the right metrics from the get-go, then TappedIn would’ve gotten the opportunity to pivot and find themselves with a much better product-market fit:

“Because we weren’t focusing on the right metrics, we weren’t focusing on getting the right traction. Like, if we’d focused on how many people are actually having the right conversations – and if we’d tracked that, that would’ve taken our product in a different direction, and that would’ve helped with the traction.”

And, while Zaki currenly manages product design and operations for the SAT redesign over at The College Board, she admits that she definitely sees herself getting re-involved in the startup space.

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About the Author

Ronald Barba is a staff writer and the East Coast reporter for Tech Cocktail. Formerly a DC native, he's now based in New York City. He reports on the Boston, Chicago, D.C., and NYC tech scenes. He's especially interested in venture capital, M&As, and tech/business trends. Aside from startups, Ronald is interested in philosophy, cognitive science, politics, social justice, pop culture, and all things geek. He reads Murakami and Barthes, and alternates binge watch sessions of 'Doctor Who' and 'The Mindy Project'. Got something to say? Then email me (ronald@tech.co). Follow me on Twitter: @RonaldPBarba. Subscribe to me on Facebook. Find me on Google.

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