Okay, fine, it wasn’t my idea or anything, but it was my first startup job and I loved it.
l was in the Bay Area during the late nineties, so like nearly everyone else I knew, I got a job at an internet startup. I was already someone who liked to work hard and thrived in exciting, high-pressure environments, so the 70+ hours a week and ever-changing responsibilities were no problem for me. At the time, I thought that little luxuries like the ping pong table, the regular WebVan deliveries of snacks, and the Herman Miller chair were all just perks–something to ease the blow to my social life.
We had other luxuries, too. We bought and completely renovated an old building in an only-just-starting-to-gentrify former warehouse district in the East Bay. If memory serves, we paid something on the order of $20,000 each month to our backup server colocation vendors on the Peninsula. In the end, I think the business topped out at 15 employees and burned about 2 million dollars of angel money in almost exactly two years, without ever producing a product.
When I say we didn’t produce a product, I mean that. We didn’t even have a prototype. We had exactly zero users. Now, because you are probably an entrepreneur (or at least a rational being), I’ll answer some of the obvious questions that arise.
1. Why, you may ask, would you spend so many digits of dollars on our coloc when there was absolutely no consequence for our site going down? I’m not going to lie to you, I still sometimes wonder where this logic came from. The only answer I can give you is that it was the first dot-com bubble.
2. I remember WebVan! That was awesome! Yes, it was.
3. With so many resources, why was there no product? For this one, there is a more clear answer: Bad strategy.
Whatever management’s original enterprise may have been, their strategy in practice had been to pursue big investment dollars by adjusting our original product offering to something that was perceived to be cutting edge. The product and business model changed every few months–just often enough to warrant a new pitch deck, design mocks, and business model, but preventing any working implementation. Case in point: In 2000, we abandoned our original desktop product in favor of “going mobile.” I was (and still am) a huge believer in the product that I had been hired to support, and I remember saying it was too soon, that we didn’t even know what mobile was going to grow up to be, and that our original idea was strong.
When we couldn’t sell the mobile version to any big investors we ran out of money, and a few months after I left the business closed its doors on Christmas Eve, without delivering final paychecks to the remaining employees. Not fiction.
Here’s the worst part: It was a good idea. It was super duper scalable, it had a huge potential market, and really so much usefulness. To this day, I will argue that if I had been the one making the decisions, the business would have been highly successful. We build the original product. We release it to a limited audience. We test, we refine, and release to a bigger market. Wash, rinse, repeat, until, when Yahoo! calls and offers to buy us, we can take them or leave them. Because back then that was considered success.
What to read next: A bit about my post-bubble career as a teacher, and how to be an amazing manager of a diverse group.