Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev, a Bulgarian entrepreneur who recently abandoned his KOLOS iPad racing wheel project after an unsuccessful run on Kickstarter.

This is how you probably don’t want to see your startup trajectory as a first-time entrepreneur:

  1. Come up with an idea
  2. Go to your bank and get a loan
  3. Build the idea in isolation
  4. Launch a Kickstarter campaign
  5. See it fail after three years in development

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me.

Hopefully, sharing my experience will help you avoid falling down a similar path.

The story

It was the end of 2011, tablets were just gaining traction. One day, I stumbled upon this:


After seeing the image, I thought: “That’s interesting. Why not combine the already established gaming wheels concept with an iPad, the most popular tablet out there?”

Boy, didn’t I feel like a genius.

After a couple of months of research, I didn’t find anything similar and so I diligently made the decision that would shape the next three years of my life: to build KOLOS, “the world’s first” racing wheel for full-sized iPads.

Thrilled, I went straight to my bank and signed off papers for a $30,000 loan. Without bothering to make a DIY mockup first, I instantly contracted an industrial designer to create the CAD models. Then, I ordered a couple of 3D printed prototypes and filmed them for a fancy video.

By then, more than a third of the money had disappeared just like that.

Go Indiegogo

Fast forward a few months, I launched it on Indiegogo (which was considered this new “crowdfunding” concept back then) to test the demand. We got featured here and there and a few lost souls chipped in $115 for a potential piece of plastic. Needless to say, the campaign didn’t reach its $150,000 goal, so I decided there was something wrong and I needed to fix it. This was already a year in and I still hadn’t talked to any potential customers.

After numerous rejections from accelerators and investors, I started going to conferences in order to build my network, pitch the idea and get actual feedback (finally). Many early-adopters liked it.

But, did they have an iPad? Did they really believe there were real problems to be solved? Or was it just something fun and “nice-to-have”? And did I ever bother to ask them all that? Nope.

In the summer of 2014, the team went through an accelerator receiving another $20,000 (bringing the total amount to $50,000) and visited the international CES event shortly after. Mostly, we kept hearing things like, “I’d like to get it for my son/nephew/cousin,” instead of, “That’s super awesome, I want it now!!11!” and then throwing money in our faces. Distributors liked it, but what do they know? They just want to make a buck out of it anyways, so they weren’t a real indicator.


A few months later, a Kickstarter campaign followed – this had been after a total of three years of product development. Eventually, I cancelled it after embarrassing – yet also sometime constructive – comments and getting picked up by major publications, such as Cult of Mac, VentureBeat, and Yahoo! Games among others.

(Editor’s note: in fact, I enthusiastically backed the KOLOS campaign)


Lessons learned

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the roller-coaster journey:

1) Scratch your own itch

When I first came up with the idea, I didn’t own a tablet, nor was I actively playing racing games on any platform. Guess what the very first thing I did with the money was? I actually bought an iPad and installed a few tilt games. I was never solving a problem I had myself, which naturally involved a huge chance of building the wrong product.

Whatever you start working on, make sure it’s a pain you’ve had yourself, so you can really relate to it.

2) Make sure there’s competition

My initial research didn’t show any similar accessories to the idea I had at the time.

The questions I should have asked and, more importantly, answered, are: Am I really the first one to come up with this idea? Or is it just something nobody needs? If it’s really an awesome idea, why isn’t someone else already doing it? Competition usually means there’s a market for it in the first place. I obviously thought I was going to create a new category. Yeah, right.

3) Build an MVP

Before I ever spent a penny on anything, I should have first put together a similar minimum viable product (MVP) and went to talk to people at an Apple Store for feedback. It would have saved me a lot of agony if I had realized early on that there weren’t any real problems to be solved. The iPad is a portable lightweight device, which doesn’t really need an extra bulky accessory to make the experience more comfortable and precise – or to be stuck to a table only.

4) Talk to customers

In order to justify the product to myself, I started making problems up – there’s an extra iPad tilt, tired arms, uncomfortable grip,  etc. Joining the accelerator, we were reminded of how important talking to customers actually is. So I “cleverly” put up an online survey and started sending it out to all our subscribers, with biased questions like, “You have these problems, right?” What I should have done is actually gone out of my comfort zone and talked to them one-on-one about their lives, experiences and pains. Instead, I continued to perfectly execute the wrong plan.

5) Don’t ignore the product

With KOLOS, we did a lot of things right, but it was useless because we ignored the single most important aspect every startup should focus on first: the right product. I consider it the classic mistake for first-time entrepreneurs. If you’re just starting out on an idea, I would recommend reading and implementing The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. There are also two free courses that could possibly save you years of mistakes, time and money – I wish I would have taken them before I started.

6) Avoid tackling too narrow of a niche

Along the way, I’ve heard the same thing over and over again, “Why just the iPad, why not all tablets?”

Looking back, if I would have properly validated the concept, I would have approached a broader market. For example, an adjustable accessory – not necessarily a wheel – that could fit all available gaming tablets out there. Although some recommend dominating a niche first, I think the chosen one, which was full-sized iPad racers only, was too narrow to start with.

7) Take a good look at the market and its potential

Another risk I took was diving into a new category so quickly – the iPad is now being cannibalised by iPhones and MacBooks and its sales are forecasted to drop rapidly. Overall tablet sales are also projected to continue at a slow pace in 2015. As one of the world’s most renowned VCs, Marc Andreessen once wrote, market is “the only thing that matters”.

8) Spend your funding carefully

I used the money to pay for 3D models, expensive prototypes, a trademark, design patent and huge attorney fees. Then, I used more of the money for a fancy video, to write a business plan, to fix my car, for a new phone, for a four-figure marketing strategy and more. My financial ‘planning’ was so destructive because I thought the money would never end. I used it in a million meaningless ways, just before I realized I was going broke. What I learned: You don’t need any of the things mentioned above until you’re sure that you’re building something that people actually want.

9) Don’t be naïve

Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover wrote something gold: “When you look back at yourself six months from today and don’t feel embarrassed by your naiveté, there’s a problem. That means you’re not learning, growing.” At the time, I really believed there was a chance we were doing something that would sell. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I personally emailed every single subscriber saying, “Still interested? Here is it!” and linking to the Kickstarter, out the hundreds of opens, I only received five responses with two of them ending up pledging. So: Always be brutally honest with yourself about what you are building and why it matters.

10) Fail fast

In 2014, I got fired from my day job and two of the team members from KOLOS left. I thought it would be the perfect time to rebuild the team and fully dedicate to the project, which I ended up both doing.

However, if you haven’t made any significant progress after two years, something is probably dead wrong. The Kickstarter campaign was way overdue, especially since it was launched after three years of development, and the whole project simply took way too long. If it takes you more than a year to develop a physical product (read: prototype and test/get feedback on) and launch a crowdfunding campaign, you’re probably going too slow.


I like to look at my experience as if I went through an affordable MBA. Stanford and Harvard both welcome you at about $100,000 per year, and I doubt I would have learned so much more there – even I if could afford it. I don’t believe you need to go through any of that to be a successful entrepreneur though. Buffer co-founder Joel Gascoigne didn’t go through an expensive MBA program. Instead, through a side project, he identified and – more importantly – tested-before-he-built a solution to a problem he had with social media-sharing. In a blog post, Joel recommends a list of 50 books that have transformed his personal and business life. Read just half of them and I’m sure you’ll be good to go.

Here’s how a few other big-name companies validated their ideas without much effort or resources before building: Andrew Mason of Groupon initially sold only T-shirts in one size and colour in a simple WordPress blog to test the concept. Nick Swinmurn of Zappos took pictures of shoes and uploaded them online to see if people were actually ready to buy shoes online – it was 1999. Drew Houston of Dropbox put together a short demo of how the product was meant to work, testing his assumption of people wanting a seamlessly working file-sync tool.

From my modest experience, I’ve learned that just because you’re building something, doesn’t make it worthwhile for customers. Think of that last useless app or product you saw recently. Did it ever cross your mind that you might be creating something similar?

Perhaps, just like them, you decided it would be a great idea if you just built it? Unless you are scratching a very itchy itch you’re having yourself – and at least a few other people have – I suggest you stop the guessing game and get out of the isolation of your own home or office and start talking to customers in order to make something they’d truly want and pay for.

Images courtesy of Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev.

  • Cristian Iosub

    He wasn’t the first or the only one with this idea. At least 3 years back I saw this http://www.in-equip.de

    • Ivaylo Hristiyanov

      Cristian, actually :) when I started out back then (end of 2011), this particular one wasn’t available. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009OZUO3U (added to Amazon November, 2012). Cideko first debuted this http://www.crowdedbrain.co.uk/ces/cideko-air-racer-multi-functional-driving-wheel.html at CES12 and then morphed into the one you are sharing.

      • Thierry Logiest

        Hi Ivaylo, if I remember well you almost pivoted to this new design ( http://www.in-equip.de ) but then abstained as you didn’t want to alienate the Android crowd ( if I remember well ). With hindsight it seems that such an item also plays a decorative role ( sitting on a desk for example ) as well as a gaming/functional role. The more streamlined Apple design may have catered better for this.

        • Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev

          Thierry, thanks for joining the conversation! At some point we were considering this minimal design https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ssz66qbzuqb9nhl/AACATsRPwrE0n8UEBt_vzszWa?dl=0 (credit to Ragnar Plinkner https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=288106895) – we called it the “iWheel”. Both concepts (KOLOS and iWheel) were always intended for Apple users (and never Android). With the iWheel we invalidated the assumption that Apple users would prefer a minimal design – everyone picked the aggresive one, that resembles the sports cars from racing games. At the end however, none of this ACTUALLY mattered :)

  • Teofil Shikov

    Great article! Went through the hard way to learn the best way! Im just curious – are you planning something else now, after all these lessons learned?

    • Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev

      Thanks Teofil, hope it helps. And yes, planning new stuff :)

  • bruce

    Great read :) This is what you do when a project fails. Never hide.

  • Sorry it didn’t work out, Ivo, but I’m glad you took away so much from this. We all get carried away in our grand ideas, but a good old reality check brings us back down. I believe we have to work really hard for the things we want and this journey was just one step toward the end goal.

    • Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev

      Appreciate it :) and thanks for your help along the journey.

  • Earl Brown

    Hi Ivaylo – great article, and thanks for being so candid. First all. may I say that I’m not so sure coming up with a completely new product is such a good idea. There are plenty of almost-great products out there that the market is buying that can be improved upon. Why re-invent the wheel when it’s selling now in spite of the fact that it’s a bit out of round? Make it a bit better, come up with a slick new image and make the current model obsolete. Hey! Google did it to Explorer! Believe it or not, Microsoft Explorer once had _92%_ of the search market! As Marc Andreesen says ‘The market is the only thing that matters,’ and how right he is. Everything else is feel-good BS.

    One of the main problems we entrepreneurs have is getting honest _candid_ feedback. I don’t want friends, associates and reviewers telling me my product / concept / idea is ‘great’. I also don’t want PC pablum: “Well, it’s an interesting idea, and there’s probably a nice market for it . . .” I want – ‘Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? ? That’s THE worst idea / product / website / crowfdunding campaign I ever saw !”, then give me a few thoughtful details to justify their ‘analysis.

    Ryan Hoover’s comment: “When you look back at yourself six months from today and don’t feel embarrassed by your naiveté, there’s a problem. That means you’re not learning, growing.” is also right on. The only part of this comment I disagree with is the ’embarrassed’ part. Embarrassed to whom? I don’t give one hoot if others rail me for failing – at least I’m out there in the trenches, and I defy any successful entrepreneur to tell me that their first time at bat was a home run.

    Here’s a draft of my new campaign I’m launching the end of May after generating as much pre-launch buzz as possible: http://goo.gl/XuoNAW Will it blow the doors off? I don’t know, but I’m giving it a shot!

    Earl Brown
    ebrown [at] jumpercard.com

    • Ivaylo Kalburdzhiev

      Earl, thanks for writing in.

      Agree with re-inventing the (KOLOS) wheel. Simply take a working concept and improve it drastically. But first, make sure it’s really selling – our competitor is “still available”, but they are actually full of stock and hence dropped the price from $55 to $19.

      One can start with Amazon reviews (the perfect crowdsourced place) on best-selling products and see where people are most frustrated.

      Regarding the feedback, if you don’t want a biased opinion like “Great idea!”, don’t pitch the idea at all :) just talk about their life / experiences / pains.

      Also, thanks for filling in the crowdfunding survey I posted https://docs.google.com/forms/d/194sPA765oHzaC4JrLyKk32V4ZBiY8PiNpodj2U7qKKA/viewform

    • Tony Davies

      No. Too many damned phone chargers. Do something original for Gods sake. So sick of copycat ideas. You aren’t being creative!

  • Kaloyan Kosev

    I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work :)

  • Thoms Shucker

    I thought it looked great, but I’m a Kickstarter junkie 0_0 – Hope it gets funded, here is a Google/Facebook technique that has worked well for us, hopefully it will for you too. http://crowdmonsters.com/getting-your-kickstarter-backed-with-traffic-from-google/ We saw a lot of traffic, likes and shares. I can’t say how many became backers but we def created buzz.

  • amazing article 😎

  • Well written and very valid points. Too many products out there that have no inherent value and end up dead. You learned a lot and helped others by writing it down.

  • Tony Davies

    He didn’t even think of the idea first, it came from seeing a photo of a smartphone taped inside a circular fluorescent bulb.

    What is the market for this product? How many competitors exist? What is the demand? What will it cost me to produce x numbers as my first batch and how many do I need to sell to break even? How will I let everyone know of my idea and how much will it cost me to let them know? Out of that number how many will buy my product? The numbers go downhill really quickly

    • Earl Brown

      I’d like to see how many original, unique and successful deals you’ve done.