Interview with Hottspot.co Founder Vidal Ekechukwu

Over the last couple decades we have seen a rapid acceleration in the growth of technological advancement and accessibility, leading to the rise of numerous emerging startups across the globe. It has become easier than ever before to reach a domestic or global audience of targeted customers through the expansion of web and mobile based technologies. While most of us are aware of the increase in wealth and innovation which arose throughout the process, entrepreneurs and product managers now face new challenges and are under constant pressure to shift their skills and mindset into a new direction.

We see new applications on the App Store on a regular basis, have friends who are launching a digital product or maybe you yourself are in the process of starting your own venture. With the ease of technology we have become outright spoiled and may have a false belief in regards to the time and effort the execution of a product may take. While something may seem simple, it can turn out to become a project of extreme complexity and issues we haven’t given any thought at the initial planning phase cloud our perception. While these types of problems are entirely natural, our way of dealing with them varies from person to person. Some begin procrastinating and sink into the abyss of avoidance, others only apply temporary solutions and some just give up completely.

In this interview, I spoke to Vidal Ekechukwu who is a Harvard graduate and the founder of hottspot.co. Vidal explains his own challenges in developing hottspot.co and the value of persistence in entrepreneurship.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Harvey Eckstein: This is Harvey Eckstein with Sibyl Journal Interview, an interview series produced by Sibyl Systems. My guest today is Vidal Ekechukwu, founder of hottspot.co, which is a creative platform  dedicated to the  discovery of artists, creatives and their events. 

First up we learn more about Vidal’s story and what inspired him to develop hottspot.co.

Vidal Ekechukwu: I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, but found myself in Boston as an undergraduate at Harvard College. There I studied Psychology as pre-med student.. However, about halfway through school, after a summer internship at a hospital, I saw the film, The Social Network, and it changed my life. 

I remember being heavily struck by two elements of the Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook story: 1) He started Facebook at around the same age and place I was at the time, and 2) His creation has significantly changed people’s lives. 

At that moment, I knew I wanted to create something just as impactful but had never created anything even remotely at that scale. I had played music my whole life but always as a performer of other composers’ music; nothing creatively original. 

I started going to entrepreneurship seminars and eventually came up with the idea for Hottspot. To build it, I started teaching myself computer programming. That same winter I also starting producing and writing my own music. Just like that, I went from being a pre-med with a well-defined future trajectory, to a creative with no clear sense of whether what I was making would ever see the light of day.

When I graduated in 2012, I continued working on hottspot.co. Though it wasn’t making any money at that point, I still wanted to take it as far as it could go. I figured, since I just  graduated, this would be the perfect time to take risks and learn as much as possible.

Harvey: Throughout your exciting venture in designing and developing your idea, what have been the key challenges which you had faced in the process?

Vidal: The biggest challenge I have faced has been finding Hottspot’s product-market fit. When I started the project, I wanted to create this ultimate tool for discovering events. I  learned how to aggregate them  by pulling data from different APIs. However, when I released the product and tried getting users to sign up, I noticed they weren’t really biting.

It took me a while to understand that people don’t really care about events. The average person goes to a structured or ticketed event maybe twice a month. I realized that this behavior would spell Hottspot’s doom if it remained a platform solely for the discovery of events. I decided it was time to pivot.., and . 

Through a few experimental social media campaigns, I discovered that people were far more responsive to high quality pictures of people they recognized at familiar events than they were to a site about events.

This led me to develop the most recent iteration of Hottspot, one which  uses high quality  photos to promote events and creatives. 

Harvey: What is your approach and methodology for acquiring users and what is it that attracts them?

Vidal: Right now we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem. The issue is that, ultimately, artists will only create content on a platform that helps them increase their audience. To expand their audience, the site would need to have a lot of users. Meanwhile, users will only use the platform, if other people are using it. 

Though it’s been challenging, we’ve been able to attract early adopters by hosting ticket giveaway competitions. Back in May we hosted a giveaway for  Beyoncé‘s  Chicago concert. We recently wrapped up two more giveaways in which  we exceeded our growth target.  Strategic use of Facebook Ads and Facebook Business was key in generating  impressions and  advertising for the giveaways.

Most importantly, I realized that when you have something that people genuinely want, and you create a low enough barrier for them to access it, they will go for it.

Harvey: From a technical perspective, what is the stack of technologies, frameworks and libraries you have used to develop hottspot and what factors influenced your decision?

Vidal: Hottspot’s backend is a Ruby on Rails application. I made this choice simply because Ruby was a popular programming language back when I started learning to code, and Rails was the premier web framework for building applications in it.

Also, Ruby’s syntax makes it very approachable for people who may have never programmed before This is in contrast to more functional or lower level programming languages, like C or Java, which at times require an elevated or abstract way of thinking to reason about code.

As far as the database goes, we are using PostgreSQL, which is a highly robust and scalable relational database. It’s widely used by a number of large organizations and has been  particularly helpful for the geospatial queries we  execute when serving events to users within a given region.

Towards the end of last year, I completely converted Hottspot’s front-end to a ReactJS. Before that, we used a mix of Rails-rendered views, vanilla JavaScript,and jQuery  to construct the UI. ReactJS has been an incredible framework, not only for the performance of the site, but also for the usability. There are a lot of things that would be more cumbersome if we were still using jQuery or another JavaScript framework.

Harvey: In the process of developing Hottspot, what are some of the things you have learned by starting this venture?

Vidal: I would say that the most important thing I have learned is to be completely honest with yourself and to constantly ask, “What do people really want?” At the beginning I had this vision that Hottspot was going to be this awesome event discovery tool and people were just going to come to it.  After realizing that this was far from reality, I used smaller tests to validate my assumptions and was able to make an informed decision about how to pivot.

I also learned to not fear learning new technologies or throwing away old code. However, the most import lesson I’ve learned, is something I’ve always known and exercised: persistence. 

As developers, we are often multi-talented and are interested in a wide range of topics. This can, however, make us easily distractible  by new frameworks and technologies. If you keep bouncing around, it is really difficult to have a stable and consistent piece of technology. You may even get frustrated by a lack of progress and give up prematurely on your venture.

Sometimes as entrepreneurs, we are fed the notion that it’s essential to fail fast and move quickly. . I think this message is sometimes misinterpreted and used as an excuse to quickly give up on a pursuit because “I tried it for three months and couldn’t get traction,” or “I couldn’t raise funding, so I moved on to something more viable.”   

Instead, I interpret “failing fast” as a guiding principle in how to run small tests and change route when necessary, but to keep your eyes on the same prize. I  feel that if you believe strongly enough in something, you’ll figure out how to make it happen. But you’ll never get there if you give up because it’s not happening fast enough.

Harvey: If you could give just one piece of advise to newly aspired entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Vidal: I am trying not to be too cliche, but the simplest advice I would give is to just do it. Don’t care what people think about you or your idea. The biggest barriers we place on ourselves are psychological. Would-be entrepreneurs are often are consumed with thoughts like  “I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” “They say that 9 out of 10 startups fail,” or “I don’t have the bandwidth to really pursue it.” 

They either make up excuses or talk about starting something for years and years and never really pursue it. When you have an idea that truly drives you, it’ll become the only thing you ever want to do. All you have to do is get out of your comfort zone, put your head down, shut up, and do it!

Harvey: Before we come to the end of this interview, I want to ask you what type of productivity tool you use on a daily basis.

Vidal: It’s kind of basic, but it affects everything I do, and that is Vim, my text editor. I joke with some of my workmates now, but as a developer, the first time you feel like a hacker or programmer is when you use Vim. For anyone who uses it regularly, it quickly becomes the only way you want to type text in any context. It’s so efficient when making modifications to files structures and making large changes to text. Vim is by far the most useful and productivity enhancing tool that I use.

Harvey: Lastly, how can people connect with you?

Vidal: The easiest way would be to simply email me via vidal@hottspot.co or reach out to me on Twitter @vidalekechukwu and Instagram @vidalekechukwu .

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This interview is part of the Sibyl Systems Journal Interview series was produced by Sibyl Systems, empowering and advancing organizations through interactive solutions, impactful design and a holistic approach to user engagement. 

Harvey Eckstein

As Managing Director at Sibyl Systems and a passionate entrepreneur, it is my mission and purpose to empower organizations through creative thinking.