It’s sort of hard to know where to start writing this blog post, especially since I’ve never blogged about this project before. I think the idea of “#BuildInPublic” where you share your progress along the way is neat, and its great for marketing, but, funny enough, its also a lot of work! When you’re trying to build a business - marketing, coding, networking, selling, and all that - it’s tough to find the time to craft a cute tweet about where you’re at.
I’ll be honest here and add that, just like with all of social media, I think people share the happy bits, and skim over the hard parts. That mentality always made me a little hesitant to share because my experience with Neptune was a lot more hard parts than happy parts.
Tl;dr: Neptune Divorce is shutting down. The rest of this post is a chronicle of the journey I took building Neptune, and any nuggets of knowledge I might’ve gained along the way.
Neptune: the beginning
I first tweeted about Neptune Divorce a little over a year ago when we had our launch on Twitter. My business partner and I had been slowly working on it for a long time. For me, it all started years ago when I went through a divorce myself and I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t some sort of online service to handle all of this for you. I thought at the time that I had some sort of brilliant revolutionary idea, but, spoiler alert, today I am not so sure.
Neptune, in a nutshell, was a way for someone to go online, answer a few questions, and get divorce paperwork. The entire process could be completed in less than an hour. I knew from my own experience how difficult it was to find someone both affordable and reliable to prepare divorce paperwork. And, of course, the last thing you want to think about when your life has been turned upside down is whether or not the person who is supposed to help you is actually just bullshitting you.
I thought this beautiful little app could alleviate at least some of the stress a person goes through when they are getting divorced. We wanted to make it as easy as possible, so creating an account was free, and using the app was free. You paid at the end, once you were ready to actually get your documents. My partner and I hoped that if we left payment until the end, we would be able to build a trust relationship with our customers.
Neptune germinated in my brain for a few years before anything came to fruition. I talked endlessly about the concept, built a small prototype, and generally thought I had a winning idea. But, at the same time, I was too scared to launch a product like this without a business partner, and more specifically a legal business partner. Finding the right business partner was tricky for me. As a woman in tech, I was wary of partnering with the right person who was going to listen to me and let me do what I do best. Almost every day, I deal with dudes in tech who don’t take me seriously, so the very last thing I wanted was something like that in my own business. I’m thankful to say that connecting with my business partner was likely the best thing to come out of this whole adventure. She’s an absolute beast in her field, and at the same time, she recognizes that I am an expert in mine. We complement each other, and working with her has been an absolute blast.
Cheerleaders, pitches, and accelerators
One person I want to call out (in a positive way) is Kristin Garcia. She is truly a gem, and was our biggest cheerleader along the way. Kristin and I met through Techlahoma, and I can’t say enough kind things about her. When I shared this project with her, I was still very shy about talking about it, but Kristin saw the potential before I did.
Kristin pushed us to do two really important things: complete a pitch competition and apply for an accelerator. Even though Neptune is at an end, those were really cool things to be a part of.
The pitch competition
Kristin reached out about a pitch competition in Tulsa. The only downside was that we didn’t have a pitch deck, and the competition was only days away. Once we knew we would be pitching, we spent every free second practicing and working on our pitch deck.
The competition was specifically for female founders and, let me say, there’s nothing like being in a room with a bunch of supportive women doing really amazing things. Every business there deserved to take first place, and even though there were only two prizes, all of these ladies remained so supportive of each other. I don’t have words for how amazing it was. It will always be one of my favorite experiences of the whole Neptune rollercoaster.
Unfortunately since we had so little notice, Harmonniey, my business partner, wasn’t able to join. This meant I had to pitch, which is not really what I wanted my role to be in the business. I would’ve been happy to stay behind my laptop building, and let Harmonniey do all the talking. But if we wanted to participate in the competition, it was going to have to be me.
On the day of the competition, my sister and I hopped in the car and drove nearly 2 hours to Tulsa. At this point, I was still really nervous sharing Neptune, so I practiced my pitch all the way there. As I sat in the audience listening to all these incredible women pitching their businesses, it was clear that all of us were all trying to use our skills to make positive change in the world.
After the pitches were complete, the judges disappeared to discuss who would win the prizes, and the founders had time to chat with the audience. I had so many people approach me to congratulate me and tell me how incredibly needed this product was. Everyone had a story about a friend, aunt, brother, or cousin who had the hardest time navigating the divorce process and how this app would’ve been so helpful for them. One woman told me that Neptune would be “generation-changing.” I still think about that sometimes. It was so much validation and exactly at a time when we needed it. We had done a soft-launch the previous September, and since neither myself or Harmonniey really knew how to market, nothing had happened. I tweeted about it once, and then got a few positive responses from friends, but nothing more. Here we were in March, a full six months later, with no customers yet, but hearing this positive feedback made me sure that we would get customers, if we could only be patient.
When the judges returned to announce the winners, they said what everyone in the room was thinking - it was an incredibly hard decision. Everyone who presented had a great idea, and they wished that they could give everyone a prize. They announced first place, and then they announced second place - no Neptune. Of course, I was disappointed, but it was hard to be too disappointed after such great feedback from the crowd, and when the winners were so deserving. But then - I’ll never forget this - completely out of left field, they announced a surprise third place prize and it was for Neptune. Talk about validation - the crowd telling me how great an idea this was, and then the judges saying that they added an extra prize and it was going to Neptune?! Surely, surely this idea would work. All we needed was time. (As a side note, having my sister there with me for that was amazing. I’m not sure I would’ve even believed it had she not been there too.)
Not long after the pitch competition, Kristin struck again! She knew of an accelerator and she thought we should apply. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure. Long before Harmonniey had come onboard, back when Neptune was little more than an idea and a prototype, I had applied to an accelerator as a solo founder, and I didn’t get in. That stuck with me, and because of it, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t get in. But with Kristin’s encouragement, we did but Kristin really encouraged us to try, and so Harmonniey and I took the leap. We got in!
The accelerator was intense. I already thought about Neptune all the time, but this turned it up to 11. Each week we would meet with different mentors - business owners, marketers, venture capitalists, and all kinds of people each with varying disciplines. And each week we would explain that, no, we didn’t have customers, but it was a solid idea, and we knew it could work. Each week, we asked the same question: how do you market something like this? It isn’t a purse, it isn’t an entertainment app. Getting divorced is a very private, very painful thing, Even if you’re the person initiating, it is still turning your whole life upside-down. How do you sell something like that? Targeted ads? Well, most people don’t hop on social media and share their exciting divorce news. Even though we kept telling people we didn’t have customers yet, we tried to remain upbeat. And our mentors were mostly upbeat as well. Most of them were excited about the idea and they thought it was really innovative and needed.
The accelerator was very focused on getting a business funded through VCs, and even though Harmonniey and I weren’t sure about taking on funding, working on a pitch was a big part of the cirriculum. We leaned in and practiced our pitch, and tried to gloss over the fact that we didn’t have any paying customers. After all, the numbers appeared to be on our side. The divorce industry in the U.S. is a billion dollar a year industry. Oklahoma, our homebase, has the second highest divorce rate in the country. If we could capture as low as 5 percent of the Oklahoma market, that would be a sustainable business. If we could duplicate that in other states with high populations, like Texas, we were talking about millions of dollars per year.
As practice leading up to the big pitch night at the end of the accelerator, we had “Investor week” where we practice-pitched to investors. This coincided with a vacation I had planned, so I took my laptop on vacation and pitched investors from my hotel room, and tried to figure out new and different ways to spin a lack of customers. Investor week went surprisingly well considering our customer issues. And even better, during investor week, Harmonniey and I finally pulled the trigger on paying for Google ads. And if that wasn’t enough, during this vacation, I learned that we had our first two real sign ups on our website. Let me tell you - I was elated. I texted Harmonniey at 11pm to tell her the great news. It was really happening! Our hard work was finally paying off, and Neptune was going to work. I could feel it.
Believing in the mission
Any article from Insider or Forbes will tell you that you have to be your business’ biggest cheerleader. Of course that is true, but at the same time, that’s not really my style. I’m naturally a very cautious person. Some people have even called me pessimistic. And for a long time, that carried over to Neptune as well. I believed it could work, but I wasn’t willing to bet the house on it. But at some point in all of this, I started drinking my own kool-aid and believing we had something really amazing on our hands. And part of me still believes that’s true.
We had a socially-minded app, when it feels like most apps coming out of Silicon Valley are putting different kinds of mustaches on an image and saying that’s “changing the world.” We were two women building a tech company in Oklahoma, one of the most conservative states in the nation. And, over time, we came to the realization that our app wasn’t just about making the divorce process easier, but an access-to-justice app. We started to really focus on the idea that our app was about making the justice system more accessible to individuals with lower incomes. And I really, really wish that had turned out to be the case. I think it would’ve been amazing to achieve something like that, but unfortunately the numbers got in the way.
Making the call to use ads
Of course, through our time at the accelerator we had spoken to lots of different business owners, and a resounding piece of advice we got was don’t use ads. Don’t pay for ads until you have to. And, to an extent, I do think this is a solid piece of advice. Ads are very expensive, and there are many free ways to market a business. Social media is an obvious one, but even simpler than that, just finding potential customers and talking to them. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s free.
Marketing divorce, though, that is tricky. People don’t want to tell you they’re getting a divorce. Harmonniey and I talked about this every day for months - how do we market something that’s focused on one of the worst things a person can go through? Everything we read seemed to be focused on physical products, a specific niche within a business, or fun consumer-based apps. Every week we asked our different mentors about how to market something like this, and we scoured the internet searching for tips on something like we were building, and found almost nothing.
After a while ads seemed like our only option. We went into it accepting that if we didn’t have any customers after 60 days, we would shut down ads and reassess. We initially tried running ads ourselves and found it very difficult. We weren’t getting the results we wanted, so we hired someone to help us. At this point, we were spending a significant amount of money each month on the business. We both knew this wasn’t something we could justify forever, but we both really believed that if we could only reach the right people, we would start getting paying customers, which would justify paying for the ads.
As if it were some sort of teen sports movie, it had all led up to this: Pitch Night! Pitch night was open to the public and it was the place to showcase all we had learned and done during the accelerator.
Harmonniey had encouraged me to do the pitch, since it was my initial idea, and my story behind the app. I agreed with her, but in my perfect world I would live behind the scenes and just build the app. Talking about Neptune meant talking about my divorce, and I always felt weird about that. But I understood what Harmonniey meant, and I practiced the pitch diligently.
Even though we had some sign ups on our app, the ads had only been running a few weeks at this point, so we didn’t have any customers from ads yet. And unfortunately, none of the sign ups we did have had turned into paying customers. Just hours before the pitch, I received an email from a user I had been corresponding with where she shared that she had gone another direction due to the app being too buggy. It was a devastating blow just before the pitch. We resolved the bug really quickly, but it was too late for that customer.
It was tough to get back in the mindset before the pitch, but with encouragement from Harmonniey and other friends from the accelerator, the pitch went really well. Lots of different people, including a handful of my friends, attended the pitch and we got more validation about how necessary something like this is. But at the same time, one person asked a haunting question: “with the numbers you described, if the app is as easy to use as you say, why isn’t everyone using it?” I felt dread even before they had finished asking the question, because I had been asking myself the same thing for months, and I couldn’t come up with an answer.
After the accelerator, we kept going with as much enthusiasm as we could, but it became more and more difficult without any customers. We had far more money going out than we were seeing coming in. After a few months like that, it was difficult to imagine that a few orders would come in and make up for the deficit, but still we pushed on.
I made the call to lets ads go on for longer than planned because I really believed if we just had more time something would change. But after four months - twice as long as we had initially agreed - it was clear that Neptune wasn’t going to work. We had the data to show that people were in fact making it to our site, and some people were even signing up. But something was happening after sign up. People would simply drop off and never log in again. Any business advice you read about user acquistion tells you to reach out to your users actively for feedback. Give your product away for free in exchange for a 20 minute call for feedback, talk about your product all you can and accept all feedback.
But when the product is divorce paperwork, its difficult to reach out and ask someone to share that experience in the name of feedback. And that’s assuming anyone responds at all. It’s already difficult to get customer feedback on surveys, but can you imagine if someone asked you to please share how your divorce went?
After four months of ads, the numbers were clear. Of the traffic that made it to the site, we did have some user conversions. But of those users, almost none actually used the app, and fewer still completed the process. No one completed the process and went on to pay for the completed paperwork and instructions. Four months of paying for ads, a year in business, and thousands of hours building, talking, thinking, and living Neptune, I had to accept that it just wasn’t going to work. Late last month, Harmonniey and I met at her office, exchanged very sad glances, and agreed that it was over.
What does it all mean?
It’s difficult to know why users were dropping off after sign up, but we have some ideas. One of those ideas is that we have a trust issue with our customers. Obviously the divorce process is a very emotional time, whether you’re initiating it or not. One thing we heard a few times was “how does a person know this site is legit?” Of course we included all over the site that it was designed and created by an attorney, but trust is about more than the idea that the paperwork is correct. Going to court and filing a divorce petition is overwhelming. The trust relationship a person has with their attorney is about trusting that the attorney is writing up the correct paperwork, and it’s also about how that attorney makes their client feel. Can an app replicate that sense of a security? I think some apps can for some people, but its clear to me now that Neptune did not.
Another difficult item was pricing. There are businesses that provide this service at a much lower cost. We thought we could charge more for our service since it was created by an attorney, however a few times we got feedback from non-customers that the app was too expensive compared to our competitors. (A few times we even got feedback that it should be free!) This creates problems with the sustainability of our business. I wouldn’t say that Harmonniey and I were in this to make millions (although we wouldn’t have turned it down!), but we also didn’t want to offer it for free. After all, it’s a single-use product (you would hope anyway), so any time you drop the price, that dramatically affects your overall earnings. There are a limited amount of divorces we could hope to capture, so it’s not as though we would be able to make it up on volume either.
Lastly, it takes a long time for a person to go from thinking about getting a divorce to being ready to actually file. We believe it’s very likely that a lot of the users we saw sign up will end up filing, but how long will it take? I’ve read estimates that say people take an average of four years to make the leap from thinking about divorce and deciding to do it, to actually filing and getting divorced. When we thought about that, it became even more difficult to keep going. We had ongoing costs each month for infrastructure alone, not even considering the ads we were having to pay for in order to get these sign ups. If we assume generously it takes a year for a person to sign up for our app and then convert to a paying customer, we have lost money on that customer without even accounting for ad spend. It was an untenable situation.
Couldn’t you just leave it going?
We did consider just turning off ads and leaving the app running. With ads turned off, it costs very little to actually run the site. I’m fairly certain we could go into the settings on our infrastructure provider and save even more money, but I also think it’s more painful to leave it going if it isn’t going to do anything. Another consideration I’ve had to make is that if I am doing this, that means I am not doing something else. The human brain can really only work on one thing at a time. Even when we believe we’re multitasking, our brains are really just rapidly switching back and forth between the two tasks, giving the illusion of doing two things at once. Of course in actuality, that means that neither task is being done as well as it could be.
So taking everything above into consideration, the emotional cost of watching Neptune slowly fail, versus pulling the plug now based on the data we have. The fact that working on this means not working on something else that could have more potential, and of course the money being spent on something that has no returns. The decision was difficult, of course, but it also became the obvious decision after a while.
What I learned
Do your research first
It’s probably not a huge surprise, but everyone who says talk to potential customers before you build is right! I kept telling myself that Neptune was different, and these potential customers would be too hard to reach and likely wouldn’t even want to talk about something so personal anyway. All that might be true, but today if I had an idea like that, I would think very carefully about how viable the idea is if I can’t talk to anyone who might purchase it before building.
It doesn’t have to be expensive to run an app
It’s actually quite inexpensive infrastructurally-speaking to run an app. Our app was less than $30/month, and it could’ve even been cheaper. We avoided AWS or anything that felt like it was going to take too much time to set up or stay on top of. Our main focus was finding a solution that would allow us to run our code as hands-off as possible. That meant managed databases and something with a simple interface. We decided to go with Render, and it was a good choice. I’ll be remaining with Render for future projects.
Finding the right balance is hard
Through this experience, I can absolutely understand why people want to quit their jobs and go full time on a project. You cannot overestimate the time commitment of building something new and then convincing people that it is worth parting with their money. I definitely understand the dominant advice about not quitting your job until you’ve replaced, or even doubled, that income. But it’s also very exhausting to work what quickly becomes 2+ jobs. And if you add in a partner or children into the mix, it’s a compounding issue.
I listened to a podcast where a married couple had built a business, and the husband/father remarked at one point that it was tough because, no matter what, you would always feel guilty. You might feel guilty because you’re spending time with kiddos, but there’s biz work to be done. But then, if you’re working on the business, you’ll feel guilty that you aren’t spending that time with your children. I found this to be exceedingly true for myself. My oldest child likes to play “Mother hen” where they try to care for everyone around them, and that includes me. On a few different occasions, I would be working late and they would come into my office to chide me for being up on the computer so late. Even in a situation where I thought I had found a balance - spend dinner and hang out time with kids, and then work after bedtime - it was still difficult to feel good about the “balancing act”.
Pitching your idea is harder than you think
Speaking and presenting at technical events and conferences is not at all the same as speaking and pitching a business idea. This one took me a long time to learn. I had been talking to my friends about Neptune for years, so I was very used to talking about the pros and cons of different tech stacks, or where to host the project, or how to manage the document generation piece. But when you’re pitching a business, no one cares about that at much. Truthfully, people mostly care about if you can make money. After that, they care about how much money you can make, and then how much revenue that turns out to be after costs. Your tech might rank fifth on the list of things people care about. This really bummed me out! I can’t say I was exclusively interested in the tech, but it ranked very high on my list, and it was something I was very comfortable talking about.
Data, data, data
People will often tell you what they think you want to hear in a conversation. If you ask someone if they think something is a good idea or if their organization would be open to partnering, most people will say yes because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. I definitely understand that instinct, but as a founder who was trying to figure out the viability of a product, it makes things really hard! If you are considering the viability of an idea, I would encourage you to keep this in mind.
On the other hand, some people seem to think that the best way they can help you is to tear your idea to pieces. Some people will be really mean about it! Try not to let those people get inside your head. I’ve heard advice before along the lines of: “don’t ever listen to people who aren’t doing the work.” Obviously this advice shouldn’t be taken to an extreme, but listen to your own intuition. If it feels like this person doesn’t know what they are talking about, or if they are just being mean for the sake of being mean - listen to that feeling.
But above all, listen to the data. Numbers don’t lie. If you’re doing the marketing and you’re doing the sales, and talking to potential customers, but not getting any bites? Give it a reasonable amount of time, and then reassess. Just because an idea isn’t working right away doesn’t mean it won’t work. But as I described above, an idea “working” is very relative. One person using Neptune would’ve been really amazing, but it wouldn’t have made us all of our money back. You have to have your own definition of what works, and how long your idea can take to work, and then stick to it. Take it from me, it really really hurts to continually give something more time, but then it still doesn’t work.
What happens next?
I didn’t even realize how much of myself I had tied up in this project until we officially made the call shut it down. From our conversations, I know Harmonniey has ideas for what we can do next, but if I’m being honest, I don’t know what is next for me. Failing is incredibly hard, and having gone through it with something so important to me, its really hard to sign up for that possibility again. I think in all likelihood, we will try again on a new idea, but at this moment in time it’s a little hard to consider.
I wish I had a better note to end this on. All I can say is that if you made it to the end of this post, I really appreciate you for reading. If you have any questions or want to chat, please find me on Twitter.