Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Goodnight Fancite - My take away from the journey

Background

For the past year and a half I have worked as the sole technical founder on Fancite, a social web application for fans to engage around rich content in channels of entertainment topics.  Fans could post images and create memes and post to these channels—other fans would comment or ‘star’ them for saving.  It started shaping out to be a richer Reddit for younger pop culture fans.  We were doing fairly well, with ~70k unique monthly visitors, decent retention and engagement with an average 14 mins time on site per session.  This was all with no press coverage, no money spent on marketing and 100% bootstrapped.  

Last week, I decided to pull the plug and leave.  It took my 2 other co-founders a bit by surprise.  We had a day long discussion of why I felt I needed to leave and in the end convinced my co-founders it was what needed to be done.  It sucks, it really does.  We discussed everything we would do differently if there is a next time.  This blog post is a discussion of our failures and my learnings from this experience.  

Where Vision and Passion Diverge.

Fancite started in May 2011 by trying to change the way we read news online.  We focused on sports first.  My cofounders and I are incredibly passionate about sports, and are fed up with the outdated experience of reading and discovering sports news.  When we started, we crawled an expansive network of RSS feeds and twitter accounts to bring users the best articles and tweets in real-time.  We launched with limited access to friends and family for feedback.  They loved it, most of my friends would come back daily.  It was a cool app my friends and I were passionate about. But it wasn’t engaging.  People came to Fancite to read articles they would normally read somewhere else, so it wasn’t especially unique.  We had the option of adding features to make the experience more social, but we were afraid this demographic is a bit harder to adapt to a more social experience on top of their news.  It’s because of this that we took what we learned and made a huge pivot.

We moved away from sports and expanded to pop culture (Music and TV).  We found these segments had fans who would remain engaged on a broader level than sports fans.  There was also an opening in the market as group fan conversations occur mostly on antiquated official forums.  This new product worked well and we saw growth in our userbase and engagement.  Our sports fans soon gave way to a younger visual crowd who would swoon over ‘One Direction’ and Naya Rivera.  After a while, it was a surprise to realize that not a single person I knew would now use what Fancite had become.  When I logged on,  I had to impersonate a teenaged girl.  This was a tough thing to do but I pushed forward because I felt seeing engaged users, whoever they were, would trump my inhibitions (after all, engagement and retention is the hardest thing to get right for a social product).  My concerns eventually snowballed.  I found myself pitching Fancite at dinners/meetups with friends saying ‘We have a lot of highly engaged users coming back several times a day, but you’re not likely to be a core user.”   This built up, and I ended up not be motivated to build out new features for this product and push through the hard days.  The vision of our product diverged with my passion (and my co-founders passions) in that pivot.  We were disillusioned by the success of our product and what drove our motivation to build Fancite.  As a founder, it is easy to be blinded and dishonest with yourself.  Don’t drink too much of your own kool-aid.  The moment I realized this, things were clear.  I am motivated by solving a problem I am passionate about. 

Solve a Problem that You Face (or at least understand)

If there is a next time around, I would solve a problem that I face.  That way I know the full context and requirements.  I did this with every side project I built before working on Fancite.   We started Fancite with this mentality in solving a problem we faced and understood (creating a better way to read sports news).  We then pivoted trying to tackle a market and not a problem.   We looked for problems in this consumer ‘fan’ market.  This created an identity crisis as we struggled for months figuring out and changing what the hell we were.  We ended up inventing problems in our heads and correlating that with our user growth as product/market fit.  This confusion showed in our product in that we had a growing user base, but each user that joined was using our product differently.  This made it hard to make conclusions from our feature tests and eventually led us to have weekly discussions of what exactly we were building.  It’s a sucky feeling when you see no progress in understanding what the hell you’re building over the course of months.  The next time around I would start by building a product with clear focus, not a startup.  You should be reluctantly forced to quit your job and start your startup because of a product that you’ve built.

Money, Money, Money

We were bootstrapped since the inception of Fancite.  For a year and a half, I was working my ass off for pure equity, no salary.  It was a great experience to realize that I can actually bootstrap without going in debt.  It takes serious planning and can be very stressful, especially with the high cost of living in Silicon Valley—but it is possible (even for a newly married man).  For my co-founders and I, engaged users were our number one priority, not monetization.  That means we needed to get product/market fit, legitimate traction and raise a seed round before we could be comfortably ‘all in’ with Fancite.  It’s a method that has a lot of precedent, but after going through it I realized building a great product takes time.  The longer you can extend your runway the better.  Having a clear monetization plan from day one takes a whole lot of risk off the table (if it works).  It will enable you to support yourself without the necessity of raising money before you can be comfortably ‘all in’.  Of course this is a tough thing to do, but its not a myth.  

Tipping Point

All of these points and more (which I’ll bring up in future posts) seemed to have converged together to bring Fancite at a tipping point last week.  We were running out of money in the bank, and we had to raise.  This was not too much of a worry, because we felt with the traction and learnings we had, we could have found solid investors to buy into this market.  This tipping point, led me to seriously think about whether I wanted to continue.   I just couldn’t go through with it, if my heart wasn’t in it and I was no longer motivated by what we were building.  We’ve had a number of sad emails from our regular users when we let them know we were shutting down the site.  That was painful.

Final Takeaway

It absolutely sucks to kill a startup.  This is probably what going through a divorce feels like.   At times I feel relieved, and other times I feel like I’m in an existential funk.  When I look back, I really don’t have too many regrets.  I look back on this journey and I can say I’ve met some amazing people, I’ve built a product that people loved,  I got a better understanding of what drives my passion for engineering, and I learned more than I can ever imagine doing anything else.  I am looking forward to working on products I feel passionate about again.  This is what motivates me.

Are you dealing with similar issues at your startup?  Or do you have advice for me?  I’d love to talk more about my experience more and help out where I can.