I read posts on Hacker News about “Why my start-up failed” and found them interesting because it’s a raw start-up story, not the fairy tales that magazines like to write about. So here is my shot at it.
Last summer, I started developing a social music site, Contrastream. The problem: finding good indie music was difficult and a good reason why the 5 big labels control everything. The solution: a Digg-inspired site where you submit albums you want to share and vote up the ones you think are worth listening too, each album gets its own page with a YouTube music video, comments, etc.
7 Reasons Why it Never Took Off
- Design Perfection, I’ve heard its common for founders to spend too much time doing what they like or what they are good at. For me, it was spending too much time perfecting the design. Not only how it looks but all the aspects of user experience. This would have been a good thing if I was a designer on a team but there was a lot more I should have been doing. Adding content, SEO, getting press, writing blog posts, and getting to know the early community to name a few.
- Underestimated the “Cold Start” problem, I read this article by Bokado Social Design which talks about a big issue you face with a social site, especially when it relies on user-generated content. The value you are providing to your users should centre around the content you put on the site, so to build some base of users, you need to create a lot of content so the first users can kick off the community. In my case, it was having interesting new indie albums always on the site. But user content usually follows the 80/20/1 rule, 80% browse, 20% interact (comment), and 1% contribute (add albums). So even though I had 10,000 people visiting in the early months, I still ended up adding 75% of the content. It was very demanding and time-consuming especially being a solo founder.
- Market Size vs Business Model, the market I was targeting with the site, indie fans who knew a lot about music outside of the usual review sites, was small. I had planned to monetize the site with ads and in the process, I realized that you need a LOT of people using your site every day to make money off of ads, or a certain type of people who can’t tell the difference from AdSense and site links. The people I was targeting were also notorious for not clicking on ads (similar to the tech community).
- Competition, we had a lot of high-quality competitors. Our site offered information for great albums, including community voting. However, sites like Last.fm and Hype Machine were offering the actual music. That was a competitive advantage that’s hard to beat and we lacked a significant user base to convince enough people.
- Motivation, having to consistently find new content was probably the biggest hit to my motivation for the site. As much as I loved indie music it was draining to constantly find new albums to post up. It turned something I liked doing into a chore mainly because at the same time I was busy marketing the site, redesigning it, and attending classes. (I was in college for business for 18 hours of the week).
- Co-founder, I had started the site with a friend, he was smart and knew a lot about business but in the end, could not contribute much to the site. One reason why was that is not technical, so he couldn’t help much with the development of the site and knowing who Michael Arrington was might have helped. The other reason was that he wasn’t really into indie music so providing content and reaching out to the users was a barrier.
- Bonus: Derivative Idea, I tried to avoid just listing the common start-up mistakes written by Paul Graham, but this one was pretty accurate. The idea itself for Contrastream wasn’t too innovative or original. It was inspired by Digg.com which had applied the same model to news and articles on the web. I still believe applying this model to music is interesting and useful, but there were so many other me-too dig sites. It was simple software to develop and it could be applied to almost anything. Plus there were open source PHP versions of it available on the web.
4 Important Things I learned in the Process
- Ruby on Rails + Mac, I had used PHP+MySQL professionally in my last year of high school but had become rusty over the years. I decided to learn Ruby on Rails to develop Contrastream and I’m completely convinced it was the right decision. This is a language that lets you build applications quickly and stay agile. Like most rails developers I also bought a Mac which is another thing I’m completely convinced about, OSX has some of the best-designed software.
- How to Get Press, I learned the importance of having something interesting to say, how to leverage a product launch to get press, and the other basics like press releases and messages.
- Practical “Getting Real”, I’ve read this book twice and had the opportunity to apply almost everything with Contrastream. Great way to learn something.
- Niche Social Networks are not Businesses, they are communities. They have to be built like a community. That means spending a lot of time building relationships, knowing everything about the niche, and finding users. You can monetize a niche social network but its really important that you don’t approach it like a business.
Bottom line, I learned more from starting this site then I would ever have from college business classes or reading blogs. As a music site, it hasn’t exactly “failed” at the moment, it still pulls in around 3000 people a month mainly from search engines. I now consider it a hobby site and I’m looking forward to applying what I learned with my next start-up, Integrate.