despair

Every time I see a startup dying, I can’t help but trying to understand what went wrong. Unfortunately, you can’t turn back time or get a time lapse of a multiple years history.

Unlike success, a startup failure might be hard to understand. Obvious reasons exist: lack of product / market fit, co founders issues, poor execution, lack culture, failure to build a great team, but it doesn’t explain everything.

Before 2011, Twitter was well known for its “fail whale” and inability to scale. Early Google was relying on (poor) competitors data before they had a big enough index. And Docker was once a Platforms As A Service (PAAS) before they pivoted to focus on Docker. Before they became the success story we hear about all over the Internet.

Semi failure is even harder to analyse. How can you know what made a promising company barely survive after 5 or 10 years without diving into an insane amount of data? Beside the company internals, such as product evolution, business model pivots, execs turnaround — a sign something’s fishy, not necessary the reason — and poor selling strategies, you need to analyse the evolution of the market, their clients and indeed their competitors.

There’s something else no one talks about when analysing failure. Something so obvious it sounds ridiculous until you face it.

Yesterday I wanted to see a friend whose startup only has 1 or 2 months cash left. Yesterday was also an optional bank holiday in France, but I didn’t expect their office door to be closed.

I was shocked. If my company was about to die, I would spend the 30, 45 remaining days trying to save it by all means. I’d run everywhere trying to find some more cash. I’d have the product team release that deal breaker differentiating feature. I’d try to find a quick win pivot. I’d even try to sell to my competitors in order to save some jobs. But I’d certainly not take a bank holiday.

Then I remembered every time I went there during the past 2 years, sometimes dropping for a coffee, sometimes using their Internet connection when I was working remotely and did not want to stay at home. There was no one before 10:00AM, and there was no one after 7:00PM. There were always people playing foosball / the playstation / watching a game on TV. Not like they were thousands people, more like a dozen. I remember late lunchs and, early parties.

Despite a fair product and promising business plan, they missed something critical. “Work hard, play harder” reads from left to right, not the other way around. In the startup world, the obvious source of failure no one talks about is the lack of work.

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