FourLeaf Post Mortem10 Apr 2017
This year I had the chance to close up on FourLeaf, a startup I’ve been working on since early 2015. Yes, I say a chance intentionally because I do believe it is an opportunity both to start and to shutdown a startup. While noone would fight to fail, failure is always the best of teachers.
I’m writing this in some parts for those of you interested in doing your own startup, but also as an opportunity to reflect on two of the biggest problems we encountered and brainstorm ways we may have potentially avoided these issues.
A product you love vs. a product that will engage a meaningful base of users. Every startup’s endless battle.
When I joined the team, we were working on FourLeaf, a networking platform for musicians… something like a cross between IMDb and LinkedIn speficially designed for musicians. As a musician myself, the idea was wonderful and I was excited to work on something that could potentially solve some of the problems I had encountered myself. We gained a little bit of traction in the LA songwriting community before quickly starting to realize all the hurdles that were in place that we likely would not be able to navigate (i.e. IMDb was unable to become a networking platform for filmmakers until it had already gained significant success as a fan driven platform)
So we pivoted. We decided we would start working on, literally, the IMDb of music. Something more for fans than explicitly for music professionals. Whoa, we quickly realized there are way too many songs for us to know how to handle. Quick pivot… we decided to focus on one corner of the market that we have some greater access to (KPop, since my cofounders had both worked in the industry). So we built out an entirely new, more KPop-fan friendly version of the site, only to discover that the more granular aspects of the site were less interesting to the average fan. They mostly wanted content that surrounded the major stars. We pivoted again to a KPop version of The Player’s Tribune, or like ESPN if you’re not familiar with TPT. We started to pickup a decent amount of traffic but then started to discover the hurdles of turning something like this into a sustainable business. Native ads?
But by this point we had pivoted so far from our original idea that it placed us firmly in a territory that none of us were that personally excited about. We went in circles a bit in this space until finally, we burned out.
I don’t think there’s a tried and true way of solving this problem, but I do think early discussions of problem scope are necessary. If you think of product ideas as a circle, there are 360 degrees of options. Pivots are inevitable, but if early on you can narrow the window to a smaller portion of that circle, I think it makes ultimately for better decision making (even if it might lead to failing faster). Our ideas pivoted in too wide of a space taking us places where ultimately in the end we realized we were unwilling to be in. Rather than pivoting 180 degrees in your ideas, just pivot 10 or 20 degrees so that your product, while it may be different, still remains within a similar scope. We justified our decisions as logical compromises, but ultimately the truth is likely that we were just settling.
Excellence vs experimentation. The neverending battle between building something you’re proud of vs throwing something out into the universe.
With our FourLeaf (IMDB for music) product, we spent a considerable amount of time (months) talking to people and developing the requirements for our product. To be brutally honest, some of the slow down was due to me being completely new to working in the webstack, but a lot of time was spent just figuring out what our product was… we even spent a whole day outside as an exercise in discovering our brand. We went through multiple iterations of design ideas before even attempting to design the site….. etc., etc. If it isn’t already apparent, we likely wasted a lot of time during this approach.
By the time we were working on MusicMind, the KPop focused product, we were operating considerably more efficiently. We’d throw out a new product, a new piece to the site, destroy it, put up a new version, all within the span of a month or two. However, what we started to see was a loss of identity and cohesiveness to the things we were doing.
A lot of people take really different approaches towards the beginning of a startup. Some of it is product dependent (i.e. some ideas are easily executable, some take forever no matter who you are), but for the nebulous space imbetween it’s ultimately kind of arbitrary as to how you decide to roll out your product. We swung both ways during the lifespan of our company and it’s hard to say which was worse to be honest. One was far too slow, the other was too aimless.
Spend time developing the ideas that are necessary. Some core components to your brand and company are in fact worth spending some time on. If you don’t know who you are as a company, once you throw your product into the wind you will definitely blow right along with it. Build the foundation slowly, but then move quick to build/break/re-make everything else.