Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Paul, and I’m the founder of Passionfruit. Passionfruit is a company with a mission to broker lifelong friendships between strangers online. Our current approach to achieving this is through the Passionfruit mobile app, where we provide space for people to have deep and meaningful conversations away from superficial distractions.
We’re pre-revenue, which means we make no money currently. We just launched the app not long ago, and growth is quite slow. This tells us that we have to do more work to figure out what kind of people we can deliver the most value to - in other words, how can we hone in on people who want introspective, thoughtful, philosophical conversations as a bonding tool and bridge to potential friendship?
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As a graduate of civil engineering, I see now that the development of digital social infrastructure, as opposed to the most mature field of physical infrastructure, is going to dramatically shape the future. I've volunteered on helplines and sensed the general loneliness and growing depression and anxiety in society, myself included. It seems that the prevalent digital social tools may often act against our best interest in solving these problems. I'm trying to bring a different approach that embraces technology without forgetting the wisdom of the past, specifically remembering the art of conversation.
A key consideration before embarking on any huge undertaking is to ask whether there is a product-founder fit. Why are you the right person to bring about this change in the world?
I have tried to build friendships on a long list of existing apps. The desire for friendship was not because I didn’t have enough already, but over time, people move away and also mentally move to different places due to life transitions. Some of the strong bonds formed from years of childhood, adolescence, and the college setting start to erode. Also, as a person who acquires new tastes and interests over time, I yearn to find people who are equally fascinated to share those same interests. This is not always possible to find in your existing network.
My frustration with the lack of context in matching people and the inability to focus on core values and passions that drive a person made many conversations inert and short-lived. With this experience in hand, I reflected on my own life and questioned how I managed to build my strongest relationships. This was when the realization dawned on me that for every great friend, I could tie the friendship back to a core value or shared fanaticism about a particular subject. This took on a wide range of different forms depending on the individual - sometimes it was a shared fascination with systems of governance, other times it was a mutual adoration of a particular athlete.
Looking around the landscape, I did not see any other apps emphasizing niche subject matters as vehicles for bonding. Now and then there would be apps that allowed you to tag yourself with fairly generic groups of interests, such as “movies” or “music”. Some apps delved deeper into a subject, but those apps were often themselves specialized entities that dealt only with a specific subject matter.
For example, a music-sharing app would allow you to explore and discuss a wide variety of artists, but you could not explore anything outside of music - such as the visual arts - on such apps. Once again reflecting on my own life, I have often come across topics that fascinate me by pure serendipity, such as the passionate advocacy for them from a friend. Passion is contagious. If we explore passions in an interdisciplinary environment, we can potentially educate and introduce people to delightful new points of view.
Thus the core premise behind Passionfruit was born. It’s a no-frills environment that shines a magnifying glass on people's passions and only their passions. That means no profile pictures, emojis, social news feeds, or any other addiction mechanisms that distract people from finding their inner voice. There is no popularity contest here, only 1-on-1 matchmaking for private conversations between strangers on similar wavelengths. Will it work? We are in the process of validating with early users.
The results are so far mixed. A few people love it just as it is, but many fail to engage or immerse themselves in this world. With the help of our supporters, we hope to crack the problem sooner or later. Whatever design changes need to be made will be considered with the singular focus of improving the ability for people to find friendship - but only those who are serious about it, admit their need for it, and willing to bear their authentic selves.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first design was a napkin concept I scribbled during the period the idea was germinated. After I had the basic premise, I hired a designer to prepare professional quality screens prepared in InVision. Here is one such screen:
As we started to build the frontend with actual code, we identified areas of improvement. For example, we implemented some new features but lacked a design for where to put them visually. As a result, we consolidated some of the app functionality into existing screens. Below shows a new Suggestions section built into the same search results screen above. The search bar is now squeezed into its own separate collapsable space. Another new section for Matches is also integrated into the middle:
Describe the process of launching the business.
We did a soft launch, as we published to app stores first mainly to test the process and make sure we ironed out any kinks. After launch, we mostly leverage friends and family, our existing networks to seed the app with beta testers. In this way, we caught a lot of reasonably inconvenient bugs that would have been a turn-off to genuine users. After about 2 weeks of testing with our inner circle of about 10-20 people, we accumulated a list of issues to fix and fixed them by 3 weeks after launch.
After this update hit the app stores, we felt confident enough to announce publically that our app was ready for consumption. Since then, we have seen a steady but gradual uptick of between 1-3 new users a day.
Financing for software development was made possible by a government grant. Specifically, LighthouseLabs, working in conjunction with the DS4Y (Digital Skills 4 Youth) program supported us by paying 5 months of entry-level salary to 3 software developers. This enabled us to get the MVP built and shipped, along with contributions from existing technical co-founders. Server costs are currently facilitated by an AWS credit courtesy of YCombinator’s Startup School. Therefore our upkeep costs are minimal at present.
We had tried a Kickstarter 3 years ago to raise funds to develop the app, but it did not succeed. We learned that we did not do our groundwork to reach out to influencers in the community so that they could direct attention to our campaign as soon as it was live. Relying on people to discover it in a sea of campaigns was just not feasible in hindsight.
The website for the company was created 3 years ago. It is currently undergoing minor updates and improvements. In the future, when other priorities are resolved, we may overhaul the website to something more modern. Here is a snapshot of a section of it:
As far as lessons learned, we continue to accrue insight day by day. Our users continue to make valuable suggestions to improve the UX/UI, and we listen attentively. This is a case of the inherent value in the wisdom of the crowds.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As the founder, I am also raising awareness for Passionfruit on other social apps that people use to meet new people. We are posting in directories, communities, websites as we discover them. Two great services we discovered for this: SpreadTheWorld and Submit Juice. The combination of our efforts so far is netting us 1-3 new users per day.
Currently, we are working on a customer development strategy with a sales advisor to accelerate growth. In all honesty, we are just getting started on this front, so there is not much we can advise about. We will have many lessons to learn in the months ahead.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Right now we have only a small, tight-knit group of 100 or so early supporters and adopters. It took us 1 month to get from no users to just over 100. We are pre-monetization, and our sole focus is delivering sufficient value to users such that it facilitates the spread of awareness via word of mouth.
We are not currently running any paid promotions. We are gradually building out a presence organically in more channels (social media, product showcase destinations, in-person, etc.). A total of 123 email addresses have subscribed to our mailing list (not counting invalid emails). The app is free for now, so no customer lifetime value or margins. Operational costs are minimal due to cloud hosting credits still in effect.
We are trying to discover more about the people that benefit the most from our solution before we jump to conclusions about what types or groups of people we should specifically target with promotional materials.
The short-term goal is to grow our user base as fast as possible with suitable candidates (not everyone would be an ideal user) and continue to monitor for areas where we can improve the product efficiently. The long-term goal is to leverage our network of users to raise funding with a monetization plan in place to present to investors.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I learned about lean startup methodology, which I had not read when I first started. The essential idea of it is to simplify your product down to 1 feature, so you can test it in isolation with users to assess its value. If you start with too many features, you don’t know for sure which ones your users like or don’t like. I kept adding things to the MVP (minimum viable product) that I thought were cool improvements or nice to have. With limited development resources, this made it hard to build and launch fast.
Compounding the problem, I chose to make an app, which is complicated and expensive to build. If I could start again, I would think long and hard whether I could test my assumptions about the value of my idea with a leaner prototype, such as one made with no-code, on a website, or a form.
I made mistakes with my first attempts to build a team. I did not research standard shareholder agreement practices in the startup industry, such as vesting cliffs. For example, usually, equity does not start vesting until after a year of working together. Promising equity upfront is risky because you have no idea how that person will behave once you start working together over a longer period. You won’t be able to predict how they react to setbacks, your working chemistry, their consistency of motivation, etc.
As I got more experienced with team building, I realized that I had much better results when I spent effort building relationships with candidates that were not in a rush to discuss and finalize things like level of equity ownership. I found that things moved faster working with people that obsessed over getting stuff done, who were willing to put out their necks and live with the uncertainty of ownership structure.
Of course, I believe these issues will have to be worked out sooner or later (such as when you go to raise outside the capital). Moreover, these experiences may not be universal for every type of startup or team. Others may work better with certainty, even though setting those things out in advance creates different tradeoffs.
In my experience, just helping other people with their problems without any expectation of return is a good way to build trust. Specifically for people with specific talents that you want to join your team as co-founders. It can be a lot easier to do things this way than getting very formal about responsibilities and trying to hold people accountable to milestones when they are not emotionally ready to commit to your cause. A contract only goes so far. There is a natural willingness in human nature to reciprocate. Of course, this may just be my personal experience. It’s possible that you could help people and not have it reciprocated.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Since our app is free and does not sell any physical goods, we don’t use any e-commerce tools. I can recommend Zoho Mail (linked to our domain purchased via Google Domains) as a free and very powerful alternative to paying for something like G-suite. For our landing site, we built it with WPBakery and hosted it using the Bitnami WordPress package on AWS Marketplace, all of which were very straightforward and time-efficient, without significantly compromising on quality.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank is a must-read methodology for any entrepreneur. The field of entrepreneurship is maturing, and we can learn from the mistakes of the past. The core premise of Blank’s teaching is about keeping your startup lean. This is something I wish I knew before I started. I made the fundamental error of not keeping things lean. You will make mistakes and make wrong turns that lead to dead ends. It’s best to only commit precious resources when armed with as much insight and information as possible to maximize your probability of avoiding wrong turns. If you don’t heed this advice, you could be in for years of pain as I was.
I and Thou by Martin Buber (1970 translation highly recommended) is a classic work of philosophy that will surely be read far into the future. It maintains a timeless relevance. Much of it is impossible to describe (and some parts even impossible to translate with confidence), so I plan to record a Youtube series of talks to help make it a bit more accessible via an audio-visual format. One of the key pieces of wisdom within teaches about the nature of relations. Forming relationships with other humans in the truest sense compels us to strip away the layers in which we experience things or have sensations.
This is very different from how we encourage people to socialize online, where often we objectify people, framing things in a materialistic way. In the process, we forget how to truly relate to people, which involves a spiritual or transcendental link enveloping a pair of whole beings - nothing can intervene while the “relationship” (in this sense) is active (thus relations are often broken as the physical world distracts us and brings us to its plane, but can later be reformed). This is just a rough approximation, as the exact relationship cannot be explained, according to Buber.
You will of course note the irony in an attempt to do just exactly that - heroic but in vain - to describe the impossible. I also personally recognize that these are loaded terms (spiritual, transcendence) and their appeal to divine authority can be seen as a copout. Still, we must use whatever means we have at our disposal to try to connect and communicate when the stakes are as high as human relations. Relations are the bedrock of our social fabric and our future as a species will hinge on how much attention and time we spend in that world.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Although I’m not very qualified to advise due to my limited success at gaining traction for my product, I have worked with a sizable number of people in the 4 years that I’ve been learning as an entrepreneur.
You have to have an intrinsic motivator in most cases. What do I mean by this? Well, there are cases where you have a great product that takes off without any hiccups. But that’s rarely the case. Most startups go through many iterations, tweaks, and pivots until they find product-market-fit. A lot of it is painstaking work talking to customers, extracting insight continuously. Then you have to juggle executing on the product and managing the team. Even if you believe the addressable market to be large, and the profit potential lucrative, how much pain and punishment can you take on the way there?
I noticed both in myself and others that when working on a project that did not resonate with our hearts, it was much easier to get demoralized and lose motivation, and eventually abandon the project. In those cases, our primary motivation was making money. When the prospect dawned on us that we might never make it to that point, the risk of investing our limited time and energy made us shudder and recoil.
On the other hand, if you believe in a cause strong enough, you can make peace with failure. The important thing is that you give your best fighting for something you believe in, and a good outcome (financially and otherwise) is just the icing on the cake. Please don’t mistake this to suggest that you will overcome any obstacle if you have enough conviction. You might have to admit defeat that the market just isn’t ready to buy into your vision (maybe too early), or just isn’t buying what you’re selling. You still have to listen, be adaptive, and be attentive. Having conviction is just a great foundation to build off, a good minimum requirement.
So, a key consideration before embarking on any huge undertaking is to ask whether there is a product-founder fit. Why are you the right person to bring about this change in the world? What about you makes you uniquely qualified to execute and deliver on the mission? What gives you the conviction that things will work out when the data suggests it’s not guaranteed? These are tough questions, and if you don’t have the answers ingrained in your heart, it may not be worth the sacrifice. Sooner or later as the founder, you will have to build a team, and the team can sense your level of conviction. It is one of the greatest resources you will ever have and especially important at this stage of the journey, at which you have few other resources (money, influence, connections) to entice others to join your cause.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are not actively hiring, but if our mission resonates with you, we would love to explore a potential fit in our team to leverage your unique strengths in making us more resilient. This includes roles such as software engineering, product design, product management, customer development, sales/marketing, strategy, legal, fundraising, and operations.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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