Cellarspot: Why It Failed

Some classmates and I launched a social network for wine lovers called Cellarspot, which was my first pseudo-business endeavor. We had about 90 registered users within the first week of launch, and now, about nine months later, we have about 100 registered users. I thought some other young internet entrepreneurs would be interested in hearing why I thought it failed and what I would change if I did it again.

Before diving in I should spend some time describing Cellarspot. The main purpose of the site is to allow people to become friends and share taste notes, bottle collections, and blog posts. There are a few other smaller features as well, but the core of the site focuses on taste notes, collections, friends, and blogs. I worked on Cellarspot in class and also outside of class with a few of my classmates.

Problem 1: UI
The largest problem is the UI. Our original thoughts were that we should focus on a functional site and not on an aesthetic site. We thought that as long as features were discoverable and intuitive that they’d be used and loved. We were wrong. According to Google Analytics, our overall bounce rate is roughly 70%. That is, of all the users that come to our site, 70% of them leave after viewing the first page that they landed on.

This metric implies that either the content being presented on each page isn’t useful, the content isn’t easily discoverable, or the look of the site doesn’t leave people wanting more. I think we got all three of these wrong. First off, the site is very unattractive. In fact, there isn’t a single image on the entire site – just plain text. I questioned some of our preliminary users about why they didn’t like the site, and most of them said that they didn’t enjoy looking at the site. We should have spent more time on an aesthetic UI, which for me means delegating the UI work to someone else. I’m confident in my CSS abilities, but I absolutely cannot make pretty looking layouts with images, design elements, awesome colors, etc. I think we did a good job of making data discoverable and useful, though.

Problem 2: Landing Pages
Landing pages are pages that people land on when they first view the site (in most cases this is the front page). We should have spent more time thinking about how people would access our site. It turns out that people won’t always land on the front page and might instead land on a bottle page. We didn’t even consider this, and it turns out that most of our traffic comes from organic search and lands on a bottle page. I’m sure that most people who land on this page say, “What the hell does this site do and why is it so ugly?” We should have included some descriptive text on the bottle page so people would at least be able to learn more about Cellarspot.

Problem 3: Understand Your Demographic
As much as we thought we understood our demographic, we didn’t; we were too general. For example, we said that our demographic was “wine lovers.” What does that mean? How old are they? Are they computer savvy? What background do the come from? Why are they going to be using our site? These are questions that we should have answered better. If I could do it again, I would build the site for young Web 2.0ers and not so much for older wine lovers. There are a few reasons for this belief. First, young people are less likely to have lots of wine, making their initial commitment to Cellarspot very small (they don’t have to type in lots of bottles and notes). Second, Web 2.0ers are easier to market to in that viral, internet-based marketing would probably do the trick. Generally you have to spend money on various ad mediums to attract less tech-involved people to the internet. Third, Web 2.0ers are more likely to understand design elements such as tabs, drop down arrows, etc. If we targeted young Web 2.0ers from the beginning, we could have catered the UI more, making the probability of it being used and spread higher.

Problem 4: Know Your Use Cases
We should have spent more time thinking about use cases, which go hand-and-hand with understanding your demographic. When a user is on page X, what are they looking for? Why are they on this page? What is the main thing they are trying to accomplish? By truly understanding use cases, you are more likely to create a site or feature that will be used. Don’t try to figure out these use cases on your own either. Ask questions to people that might be using your site at some point. I did tons of research for Cellarspot, where I spoke with young and old wine lovers about how they would use the site. I did a poor job of synthesizing those thoughts and understanding Cellarspot’s use cases.

Problem 5: Make Economic Decisions
I spent a lot of money on a rack-mountable Dell server thinking (knowing) that Cellarspot would be successful. I also spent (and still spend) too much money colocating that server, although now the server is actually being used by lots of other sites, including this blog. Start small with hosting and scale your hosting options as demand rises. Start with a standard web host or Amazon EC2 and buy your own servers later only if you have to. Don’t get me wrong, buying my own monster rack-mount and colocating it in a data center was awesome, but it’s absolutely not economic. Here are some bonus pictures of the server and data center:

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Robert playing with things.

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Tony, our network admin, hanging out in the data center.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Think; It Matters What Your Users Think
While rereading my post before publishing, I realized that I say “I think blah” a lot. This made me remember the words of a former professor of mine, John Castle. You can make claims about what your users will think, but you have no way of validating those claims unless you actually speak to your (potential) users. Prior to making a product, do some research. Talk to some people in your demographic. Ask them what they want in a product and how they would use that product. It doesn’t matter what you think; it matters what your demographic thinks. The best way to know what your demographic thinks is to interview them and find out for yourself.

Cellarspot was a failed business but not a failed experience. I learned an insane amount from pursuing Cellarspot, and to this day most of my interviews involve Cellarspot. I don’t regret anything about it at all, but I wish I had the time and motivation to launch a sweeter, more badass Cellarspot. Try your best to launch an awesome product, and make sure you learn as much as you can from the launch. In my case, the experience gained from launching a product greatly outweighed all other aspects of the product, especially the (negative) cash flow