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This blog post covers some of the lessons learned at my failed company, LayerVault. For some backstory, please read the Prologue.
One of LayerVault’s problems was our inability to focus on the problems that we committed to solve. One of the sentences from Paul Graham’s essay 13 Sentences is “Avoid distractions”:
Nothing kills startups like distractions. The worst type are those that pay money: day jobs, consulting, profitable side-projects. The startup may have more long-term potential, but you’ll always interrupt working on it to answer calls from people paying you now. Paradoxically, fundraising is this type of distraction, so try to minimize that too.
I could hardly say it better myself. LayerVault was a company defined by its distractions, and the fault of this fell mostly on my own shoulders. It was my responsibility to say No, and I hardly did. Here are some of the distractions that we faced:
- An on-premise enterprise product
- Designer News
Each of these forced us to split our time among our small team, and become an unsaid excuse as to why other work was not getting done.
Dangerous distractions are good ideas
Each of the distractions were good ideas. Hell, even our implementation of a few of them were good. But each one became another plate to keep spinning.
We decided to embark on building an on-premise enterprise product in the summer of 2013, and that was quite the mistake. Our small team and small bank account simply did not have the resources or know-how to build an on-premise product. In retrospect, we should have focused more on the technology behind our cloud product than to develop an entirely separate offering.
Around the same time of building out an on-premise product, we also decided to build what later became known as Delivery. It was a standalone service that let you present designs in a clean format. It was loved by a few folks, and was later loosely integrated into LayerVault. The problems came in the integration and confusion. Did you need a LayerVault account to use Delivery? No. Can I send my designs in LayerVault to Delivery? Yes. Can I leave feedback on my designs on Delivery? No, only within LayerVault.
Delivery was a good idea, but developing it as a separate service was not. There was a strong demand from our customers for its features, but as a deeply integrated part of LayerVault. By developing it as a standalone product, we had all of the problems of a distraction without any of the potential benefits.
Lastly, Designer News. Although Designer News is a healthy and vibrant community, I believe it was a distraction. While the outside world believes Designer News to be a genius iteration on content marketing, it split our attention too much to justify its existence. Why is that LayerVault release slipping? Oh, we’re spending time on Designer News. Why is Designer News not getting enough attention? Oh, we’re focusing our engineering talent on LayerVault. We had developed a conveniently cyclical excuse chain for ourselves.
Paul Graham’s Essay “How Not to Die,” originally published in 2007, hits this right on the head:
Distraction is fatal to startups. Going to (or back to) school is a huge predictor of death because in addition to the distraction it gives you something to say you’re doing. If you’re only doing a startup, then if the startup fails, you fail. If you’re in grad school and your startup fails, you can say later “Oh yeah, we had this startup on the side when I was in grad school, but it didn’t go anywhere.”
You can’t use euphemisms like “didn’t go anywhere” for something that’s your only occupation.
Our distractions were not external or individual, but collective and internal. Rather than getting distracted by going back to school or becoming a consulting company, we got distracted by other ideas we could explore in the space that we were operating in.
Designer News was even more problematic, because its growth was much stronger than LayerVault’s.
Distractions that (seem to) work
Were we more mature and could rewind the clock, we might have had the maturity to make the most difficult call. Around June 2013, Designer News was a few months in and experiencing real growth. Like that mythical doubling-every-month growth. In the case, we should have considered killing LayerVault and using our time to work on Designer News. We should have also considered immediately jettisoning Designer News and continued to focus full-time on LayerVault.
There are a few problems with ditching what we set out to do to focus on DN. Designer News is not an immediately-obvious “venture-scale” business. (For the sake of this blog post, a venture-scale business is a company that could be potentially worth $1 billion.) A more cynical view on the matter could point out that a growing Designer News is a much more valuable acquisition target. The total potential for Designer News had not been achieved, and the jury was still out as to whether Designer News could be an effective marketing arm for the company.
So, with a mix of hubris and ambivalence, we did nothing. And this turned out to be an expensive mistake. Fast-forward two years and we were winding down the company with several products that had long been starved for resources. What we had was several mediocre things; we hadn’t done one thing well.
Kill your distractions
So, dear reader. That leaves me at the point where I wrap things up.
If you are running an early-stage startup and are not achieving growth goals, focus immediately on correcting those problems. Do not create more distractions for yourself.
Content marketing will not save you. 10 years ago: SEO would not save you. 20 years ago: a Super Bowl ad would not save you.
Learn the methods of Customer Development. I learned them much too late in the company’s life. Read The Four Steps to the Epiphany knowing that you won’t get things right the first time around. Relentlessly cull the ideas around your product and make sure each one can be traced back to an existing customer problem.
In short, don’t get distracted.
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