#Asia Startup dies after nearly topping Product Hunt charts. Founder shares hard lessons learned.


Lisn failed startup

Music is sweeter savoured in company. Friends Abheyraj Singh, Vibhas Jain, Abhinav Chhikara, and Bhargav Sosale knew this well. And that’s why they built Lisn, an app that would let you listen to music with a friend and chat about it within the app. You could stream and share songs on SoundCloud and Spotify, which would sync real-time when your friend tunes in. You then listen to it together, as if you were in the same room or sharing earphones.

But not anymore. Lisn will shut down at the end of this month. This is after a year of playing music to over 10,000 people, who shared and listened to over 120,000 songs.

I could never have anticipated how insanely fun it would be to feel like a DJ for your friend.

The four friends first built it as a hackathon project in October 2015. Chhikara, Jain, and Singh had worked together at real estate portal Housing’s mobile team. Jain had moved on to being the lead designer for digital wallet Paytm, and Singh moved to Airtel’s Wynk Music, a streaming app. Sosale was their friend from school days.

“Couple hours into the design and development, we had a working prototype that used the Spotify API and had chat… After spending about 45 minutes playing music for a friend on the app, I realized what a huge impact prototyping the core experience of the app can have. I could never have anticipated how insanely fun it would be to feel like a DJ for your friend,” Chhikara recalls.

Buoyed by their experience at the hackathon, they began working on the app full-time, and launched it in August 2016. In weeks, it was number 2 on Product Hunt and stole media limelight.

Lisn was free to download on iOS and charged no subscription fee. It was also ad-free, focusing on great user experience. The plan was to think about making money after it built sufficient traction.

“The app spread via word of mouth in college campuses and offices. Friends used it to recommend music to each other, long distance couples used it to stay connected, and musicians used it to collaborate,” Chhikara says.

A few months later Android developer Tejas N.A. joined the team. Glowing feedback from users (like the one below) kept them going.

But it all came to nought in a year’s time. Here are the lessons they learned from their failure:

1. Lacked conviction in retaining users

The app was getting around 100 downloads a week, and users were making requests for new features. This suggested good traction but the weekly active users stayed constant around 200 for months.

The team realized they had to learn about this core group and grow the number. For example, they noticed that the top users were sharing 30 or more songs, so Lisn added queueing to make it easier to share multiple songs.

The team did notice patterns which suggested who were using the app the most. Most people only talked to one or two other people. “The right thing to do might have been to find more couples and get them using the app, but we didn’t do this because we weren’t convinced,” says Chhikara.

2. Lacked experience on scaling a product

The founders had worked in companies like Paytm, Airtel Wynk, and Housing, which had built products used by multitudes. But their experience was more with product design than scaling. This was the main reason why their efforts at retaining users proved sporadic and ineffective. They were responding to feature requests without a clear gameplan.

“Our approach was always from the lens of product design rather than the systematic lens of analytics-driven product improvement,” Chhikara says. “We learned a lot by doing, but we didn’t have these skills from the start. And by the end of it, we were burned out.”

3. Too small a problem

At the end of the day, the founders realized they were so caught up with making a beautiful app that they lost focus on why they were doing it. “We were married to the solution rather than the problem. And unfortunately, the solution solved a problem but it wasn’t big enough,” co-founder and designer Chhikara said.

This is a common failing among entrepreneurs, and to some extent it’s unavoidable. You begin with a hypothesis about a problem, and learn from traction how big a pain point it is that you’re solving. What’s important is to identify your target users fast and talk to them. Steve Jobs realized this: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

The world had moved to streaming music to their phones, so the Lisn founders were in the right space, although even biggies like Spotify and Soundcloud are yet to crack monetization. What they realized in the end was that owners of music libraries – like Apple, YouTube, and Spotify – were better placed to build features on top of them to create new experiences for users. There was no great need for Lisn as a product.

4. Founders emerge more rounded out

Despite the failure, the founders gained from the experience. Here’s how Lisn rounded them out as entrepreneurs and developers:

Abheyraj Singh was an iOS developer. At Lisn, he took up product design. He now works as an interaction designer at Lazy Eight, a creative agency on the cloud.

For Vibhas Jain, it was the other way round. He started as an interaction designer at Lisn, but had to learn to be an iOS developer too. Now he’s building products for Hypertrack, a startup providing location-based services.

See: 25 failed startups and lessons learned from them

Bhargav Sosale was a full stack developer with ML/AI research experience. At Lisn, he learned “what it takes to build consumer apps and how to think in terms of value provided to people rather than tech solutions.” He’s now in Entrepreneur First’s summer cohort in Singapore, exploring ideas for his next startup.

As for Abhinav Chhikara, he says he started out as a purist designer, but learned at Lisn “what it means to build well-designed stuff without being attached to the design, how to get people excited about what you’re building, and how to seed your first few thousand users.” He’s currently consulting with startups and writing a book on freelancing.

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