In 2011 we launched our first version of our social media dashboard product called “TodayLaunch.” In 2013, we killed it.
There was little fanfare and few tears. It was the right thing to do. In some ways, I wonder what took us so long.
It was our first “kill,” or at least our largest one. So, why did we finally decide to pull the plug? And more than that, why is pulling the plug such an important thing to do?
You can learn a lot in a few years. At CoSchedule, we learned how to build amazing, real-time, web applications like TodayLaunch. We also learned that we are not a “social media dashboard” kind of company.
When we got into the social media dashboard business, our original goal was to make social media marketing simple for the small business owner. We envisioned a product that gave them a virtual ‘to-do’ list for social media marketing. This idea never fully materialized for several reasons, but we also made some bad assumptions.
- The TodayLaunch idea was heavily reliant on monitoring. In reality, most small businesses don’t really need monitoring tools because there isn’t a lot of activity for them to monitor.
- Small business owners conduct most of their own social media work from their smartphones, not their desktops.
- For many small businesses Facebook is all they need, and all they can handle. They don’t have social media teams, and they don’t need a dashboard. They need focused tools that make life easier – like Buffer, or CoSchedule.
In the end, these were assumptions that we should have been testing all along, much like we are doing now using the lean startup process.
No Room To Innovate
There were also some larger problems with our idea. The real “social media dashboard” market required us to solve some problems that we weren’t all that interested in solving.
- We weren’t particularly interested or skilled at solving web/social “monitoring” problems.
- Analytics was a huge part of making a product like this successful, and this was another area where we didn’t feel like we had much to offer.
So, what it really came down to is that the problems TodayLaunch required us to solve weren’t something we were interested in, and the problems that we were most interested in solving did not demand the type of tool that we were building. We needed to get out from under a product that was ultimately holding us back. We needed to move on to something that allowed us to innovate at what we knew best.
This is a huge takeaway for new startups. We can be easily distracted by a perceived opportunity, and completely miss our calling. We need to go where we can innovate the most.
Features, Features, Features
Short of launching a new social network, I can’t imagine a more crowded space than the social media dashboard market. There are hundreds of them, and only a few of them have a significant market share. Our competition was fierce, we were on a features race, and we were losing badly!
As a startup committed to bootstrapping our way to success, we just couldn’t keep up. A features race is bad business when you are short on development time and money. To truly succeed, we would need something in a niche market with a sustainable development timeline.
For new startups, particularly those who are bootstrapping, choosing the right market is absolutely huge. We chose one that made progress nearly impossible. We won’t make the same mistake twice.
Free Is Not A Sustainable Model
If TodayLaunch convinced us of one thing, it is that freemium is not a sustainable business model.
While it sounds great when you read Chris Anderson’s theories, freemium just doesn’t work unless you are in a scalable position. With TodayLaunch, market forces caused us to offer a free version. This, in turn, caused us to continually broaden our product scope. Freemium pay models demand mass-market appeal, but it was a problematic reach for our small team.
We should have considered an early pivot that would have allowed us to become a more focused niche product.
In reality, this is a lesson that many other web apps need to learn. I see a lot of others making the same mistake we did and this shows a flaw in the current startup culture. Many small startups who don’t have funding emulate those who do. This is a sign of trouble. Funded startups are designed (and funded) to scale. We just wanted a small product with a good profit margin. There was no reason to follow the big boys. Most founders would be better served to launch niche products with a 100% pay-to-play model. This will force you to flesh out your idea quickly, and validate your approach.
Going In For The Kill
The decision to kill TodayLaunch happened when we realized what our overarching mission at CoSchedule really was. We weren’t in the business to help people with their social media, we were in the business of helping the world create and distribute content. We knew there were better ways for us to do this than with TodayLaunch.
In all reality, we should have done it much sooner. We lost a great deal of time on this project. But, looking back, I wouldn’t change that for anything. We’ve simply learned too much along the way. You can definitely call it the school of hard knocks, and they are the kind of lessons that you can only learn the hard way, by making your first kill.
Here is a shortlist of what we know now that we wouldn’t have learned without TodayLaunch:
- We learned how to build great, real-time, software.
- It forced us to adopt new tools like Node.js, Ember.js, and MongoDB. These technologies are the future of the web, and now we are on the frontline.
- It gave us a great use-case for better following lean principles.
- We got good at customer support and learned how to get useful feedback from our customers.
- We learned how to work as a team through many successes and failures.
- We learned our lesson on “free software.” There is no such thing.
- We got to have a cake to celebrate the shutdown.
More than anything else, though, I would say that the biggest lesson that TodayLaunch taught us was understanding who we really are. Without TodayLaunch, I am not sure we would have discovered our true calling as a company so quickly. We are now on a mission to help the world create and distribute content.
Sometimes, you need to figure out who you aren’t before you can understand who you are.
This post was originally published on Medium.com, June of 2013.