My Startup Story #14: Testing More Than Our Beta

It was time. After two years of preparation, pitching, and development, Mammalz was going to see the light of day for the very first time. All of those meetings with our Indian team past midnight. All of those early morning networking events that followed. All of the times we doubted ourselves but powered through. It was all about to be worth it. Our dream of creating a new community-based platform that would completely reinvent the way the world experiences nature was now something we were holding the palms of our hands.

Man, did that feel good.

For a solid few days, the Mammalz beta was functioning perfectly on the web and iOS. Rob and I made our first posts, sore from smiling, and nearly one hundred of our friends and connections in the wildlife filmmaking industry joined us. Soon, we started receiving bug reports. We knew there were bugs, but what would come next was far, far out of left field.

Just after we launched the beta, Rob and Pam headed to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. For those of you who have never been or heard of the festival, this is our industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. Every big shot who has ever stepped foot in the wildlife filmmaking world attends this festival. With our beta on their phones, both Rob and Pam felt like superstars walking onto that festival floor. Gazing out the giant windows of the Jackson Lake Lodge at the impossibly beautiful peaks of the Tetons, they met with each industry giant one-by-one, showing off the Mammalz app and pitching our vision. The timing would have been absolutely perfect if signing up for the beta had still been working.

I was managing our team from the homefront in San Diego when we received not one, not two, but dozens of complaints from Rob, Pam, and other respectable filmmakers in our industry who could not sign up for Mammalz. Functionally, we were dead in the water until we could solve this bug, and our team in India was asleep. Sweating bullets, none of us could figure out what went wrong. All we could do was send frantic emails and WhatsApp messages to our project manager and hope his team could solve the problem quickly. We still had another few days to go at the festival, so if it were fixed quickly, we may get some second chances. One day goes by. Two. Three. The only thing we hear from KiwiTech is that everything seems to be working on their end, but they would keep searching. The staging and QA servers were working perfectly. Why wasn’t the production server working?

A few days later, all of us were back together in San Diego, embarrassed by what had happened. To put it nicely, our first impression to the industry we were planning on disrupting wasn’t the best. That next morning, I received another email from KiwiTech. They found it. “There was a tracking code plugged into the middle of the SendGrid,” they explained. Basically, the process that triggers account verification emails had a clog in it. Our Head of Data Science practically melted onto the desk. “That was me,” he admitted. To be fair, none of us knew there would be any negative effects when we agreed to start tracking the traffic to and from the platform’s account creation page. I was just glad we discovered the problem and could resume the beta.

In about five minutes, we were back up and running at full speed. We manually verified everyone who had gotten stuck at the festival, emailed direct apologies, and battled onward, only to be stopped a few days later by a problem with the Facebook Connect. The next day, our content uploader crashed. When Apple issued an iOS update, users could no longer open the app. When Apple patched the update with dark mode, our app’s colors inverted. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong in those first two weeks. Writing about it now, it’s hilarious, but at the time, we were suffering in the chaos.

Fortunately, that storm only lasted two weeks. Throughout the following month, we were smooth sailing. We recorded podcasts, got published in the news and on television, and heard nothing but compliments from our early users. During TwitchCon, which had come back to San Diego in 2019, we were lucky enough to live-stream alongside the American Eagle Foundation and their adult bald eagle Challenger right outside our office. Our fellow entrepreneurs thought that was pretty cool and wondered what animal we’d bring in next.

Meanwhile, Rob and I were trying to leverage the traction we were getting to receive another investment. If you remember from my previous chapters, we had only acquired enough funding in our second round to get us a few months down the road — about two months into our beta. This time, the pressure was higher. I had real people working for us who needed to pay their rents and buy food. Despite our situation and the fact that we had a growing community behind our product, we were still told “you’re too early for us” about a hundred times. I was enraged. That anger led to sadness. What was going to happen to our team?

October came and went, along with the last paychecks. One at a time, I sat our team members down and had a serious conversation about their commitments to the company. All of our user acquisition strategies and community retention methods had been developed and executed by these gems who had taken a risk and joined our tribe. I was not ready to lose their skills, nor was I ready to lose these new friends who were so passionate about what we were building together. In the end, two of the three stayed with us as we skidded past the end of our runway. To this day, I am astonished and humbled by the tenacity of Stephen and Sabrina.

With the beta still growing strong, it was time to prove our dedication and find a way to stay afloat.

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Alexander Finden

Co-founder of Mammalz, underwater cinematographer and Divemaster