A little over a year ago, I was sitting in my engineering entrepreneurship class preparing to pitch the idea of HotPlate for the first time.
“Why isn’t there anything out there that can tell me about the best dishes at restaurants?”
The one-minute elevator pitch ended up winning the most votes in the class and moved on to become one of the projects for the quarter. From there, we self-assembled our initial team and spent the next few months validating our idea. Knowing we were onto something really cool, by the end of the course, I was itching to start developing our product. I thought that as soon as we could ship the app for diners to use, we will start scaling exponentially. Boy, was I naive. Little did I know that the journey would be much more complicated than that.
Here are 5 things I wish I knew before I started working on HotPlate:
1. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution
In the early days, we were very solution driven. Instead of focusing on “let’s figure out the best way for diners to discover the best dishes at restaurants” we focused on “creating a menu-rating system.”
Little did we know that building technology is hard. It always takes longer than you initially expect. With an app like HotPlate, you have to figure out the backend database structure, user experience, interface design, feature-set, and most importantly, how it all comes together to offer one seamless experience. Of course, to add to the mix, through the midst of it all, countless dreaded bugs will pop up.
There are a lot of ways to test the concept of your idea without actually ‘building’ anything. Zappos started by just taking pictures of shoes at stores and selling them while Dropbox went viral with a simple concept video.
If I were to redo this, I would first focus on building a community that also loves the problem and then supplementing it with technology to organize content.
2. What people say they want and what people actually want are very different
There have been countless times that I have described HotPlate to someone and heard expressions like “Wow, this something I would use all the time!” or “I went to this restaurant the other day and ordered a terrible dish, I wish I could have used HotPlate.”
This kind of feedback is validating. It is exciting. It is also very dangerous.
It gave us the impression that people wanted to see the ratings of individual dish items in order to easily find the best dishes. Which is true…but to an extent. While people want to have confidence in the meal they are ordering, we quickly learned that it doesn’t translate into users actively rating dishes and engaging with the app regularly. On a platform that relies on user content and data, we had to figure out what would drive interaction. Evanston was a great learning process and all of our findings will directly help strategize our Chicago launch.
3. Take your time in working out the UI/UX design of the app before coding anything
When you do decide to start building out the technology, you need to focus on the design in the early stages. Our team had a general idea of a few things that were important to gather feedback on. We did a lot of user research, paper prototyped the flow of the entire app, tested with potential users and created wireframes that guided the front-end code, but it still wasn’t enough. The first version of our app had a lot of usability issues.
There are a lot of little details that good design takes into account that we barely notice. If it is your first time creating a major product, like it was for us, it is important to be mindful of all of these different actions and states. Which rating system is most intuitive? How does a user edit a rating? What will the rating system look like if you haven’t rated the dish yet? What if you have rated it? All of these questions and more need to be answered and accounted for in the final design.
4. You spend so many hours on emails. So many hours.
Once upon a time I barely checked my inbox. Then I began working on a startup and suddenly, my email app was used more then text.
Email became the medium through which people in my network started introducing me to prominent leaders in my industry, investors, marketing experts and anyone else that could help in some way or another. I quickly learned that email threads will explode setting up a time to chat and that it is much easier to send a list of potential days and times that I am available to chat.
In general, learning how to craft a great email is more important now than ever before. I quickly learnt that I needed to focus on communicating well, being professional, responding within 48 hours and always saying thank you!
5. There will be many ups and downs but that is what makes the journey worthwhile.
I always knew being an entrepreneur had many ups and downs but I don’t think I actually internalized that feeling until recently. There will be days that I feel unbelievably motivated and like the team can conquer any challenge that comes our way. Then there are other days that I feel like I am at the bottom and things do not seem to be working. Being an entrepreneur will test your resilience in a way you never thought possible. From your ‘big idea’ crashing and burning to app store rejections and not to forget, a variety of awkward conversations, days and nights will feel like a never ending battle.
There is a reason you decided you fight this battle though, there was a problem you fell in love with. I find myself constantly going back to the problem I began with and falling in love with it even more.
I wouldn’t have it any other way and it is all part of the journey. I can look back and confidently say that the last year has been my biggest educational roller coaster and I have learnt much more than any class or project could’ve taught me.
Sarah Ahmad (McCormick + Weinberg, ’18) is currently the CEO and founder of HotPlate, a platform that allows users to discover the best dishes at restaurants through individual dish ratings, reviews, and recommendations. She was previously the Co-President of the Northwestern University Chapter of Society of Women Engineers (SWE).
HotPlate is a Resident Team at The Garage and former Wildfire participant. This article was originally posted on HotPlate’s blog, and shared with Sarah’s permission. Keep up with all things HotPlate on their website and Instagram.