This Christmas I shut down my side-project/bootstrapped startup crowd.fm, and not before time. It’s been clear for a while that crowd.fm could never be what I wanted: a successful software as a service and maybe even a primary source of income.
A short history of a failed startup
It was a 3 year effort (part-time and mostly solo) to get crowd.fm to a public launch. When the first paying customer signed up the feeling was out of this world. I’d shipped something. Actual people were paying to use it! Over the years some 5000 events across 4 continents have been promoted with the help of crowd.fm. Unfortunately the high of getting that first paying customer was short-lived as it never managed to grow beyond a dozen paying customers; barely enough to cover the hosting costs.
What went wrong?
I won’t go into all the details here but needless to say crowd.fm’s failure was inevitable. It was a solution to a problem people didn’t know they had. And those that knew they had it weren’t looking for a solution, let alone willing to pay for one.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it took way too long to realise this. I’d say my biggest failing was being more taken with crafting a beautiful solution than making sure I was building something that people wanted badly enough to make a viable bootstrapped-business. You can hear more of the gory details in a talk I gave a couple years back.
Would I do it again?
Would I spend over five years bootstrapping an events promotion platform knowing what I know now? Hell no! Would I build and launch my own online product again? Damn straight I would. Mainly because I learnt an immeasurable amount doing so. Launching your own product forces you to learn skills that you may not normally develop to as a developer. Things like: interaction design; onboarding; how marketing works; how to write engaging and useful content; customer development… Basically a whole bunch of “soft skills” that give you a deeper understanding of how people think, make decisions and use software to get things done. I have no doubt that this exposure has made me both a better developer and more valuable as a contractor.
If I was to do it again though, I would do things differently. I would make sure I was targeting an audience I understood and was able to easily reach. I would solve a meaningful problem and in a way that could significantly impact the work of that audience. And rather than jumping straight into the code, I would start with something small and build from there.