I've finally shut down my failed startup

This Christmas I shut down my bootstrapped startup-come-side-project crowd.fm. It’s been clear for some time that it would never be what I hoped for: a successful software as a service and potential primary source of income. For the sake of posterity and some cathartic release, here are some thoughts.

A short history of a failed startup

crowd.fm homepage

It was 3 years 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; real people were paying to use it! Over the years some 5000 events across 4 continents were 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. It made barely enough to cover the hosting costs.

What went wrong?

Promotional video for crowd.fm

I won’t go into all the details here (for that you can watch a talk I gave on the subject a couple years back), but needless to say failure was inevitable. Essentially I was a providing a solution to a problem people didn’t know they had. And those that that knew they had the problem weren’t looking for the solution, let alone willing to pay for it.

ven diagram illustrating solving the wrong problem

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it took too me way long to realise this. My biggest mistake was being too focused on crafting a beautiful solution, when I should have been focused on making sure I was building something people actually wanted and needed enough to make for a viable business.

Would I do it again?

Would I spend five years bootstrapping an event promotion platform knowing what I know now? Hell no! Would I build and launch my own online product again? Damn straight I would. I learnt an immeasurable amount doing so. Launching your own product forces you to pick up skills you wouldn’t normally develop as a developer. Things like customer development; interaction design; onboarding; how online marketing works; how to write engaging and useful content… Basically a whole bunch of skills that you need to be able to create great products and services. I have no doubt that this exposure has made me both a better developer and more useful to product teams.

If I was to do it solo again though, I would do things differently. I would target an audience I understood well and was able to easily reach. I would solve a meaningful problem in a way that would have a significant impact on what they did and how they did it. And rather than jumping straight into coding I would start with something small and build from there.

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