Failure. I had to get that out of the way, first. Failing is not fun. Jason Calacanis recently wrote about startup conditions in (The) Startup Depression. That write-up really resonated with me. As a parent, I understand there are some things that can really only be understood by experiencing them (parenthood being one of them, IMHO), and startup lessons may be one of those things. However, as a founder of Ringside Networks, I feel the need to “purge” and also to respond to some of the things written about Our Fine Company yesterday, as Bob Bickel’s blog on the topic made the rounds in the blogosphere.
Many people have commented on our failure, and I plan to comment back. In the spirit of looking forward, though, I try to compare the lessons I have learned and the personal cost of those lessons to a Wharton MBA. I’d like to think I’m slightly ahead right now. And now, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve personally learned through this experience:
1. Fail Fast
I know you’ve probably read this about a million times. One more time certainly won’t hurt. Ringside Networks could have avoided some of our negative experiences by holding desparately on to this core concept. We started out with this mantra, promising to use our seed money to fail as quickly as possible (okay, we were slightly more diplomatic, but this was clearly our stated direction). At a certain point, we didn’t give this rule the respect it deserved. If you find yourself in a position to coast along for another few months or to jump into the pool and find out just how freezing cold the water is, do yourself a favor and jump in the pool.
2. Trust your Gut
It’s hard to give this as advice, because, frankly, this isn’t good advice for some people. Some of my favorite moments in reality TV are from The Apprentice, when the project manager fiercely holds on to the wrong concept, and you can see them implode through the show. But this lesson doesn’t mean to trust your gut and never look back; your gut should be constantly checked, because conditions change rapidly at a startup. Personally, this rule has always worked out for me. I confess that sometimes I didn’t do this at Ringside, and those are the only moments I regret.
3. Put the Company First (in business decisions)
A lot of startup pundits won’t have the qualifier “in business decisions,” but that’s just not me. For me, work-life balance (such as it is at a startup) is an important part of the equation. My son is at that age when he will soon want nothing to do with me, and I’ve been married for quite some time (and I’d prefer to keep it that way!). Note that “balance” doesn’t have to mean “50/50”, just something that is tolerable for everyone concerned, given the risk/reward equation.
When making a decision on behalf of the company, though, the only right way to make that decision is to pretend to be the company. This process is similar to the “jump in the pool” process of failing fast. It is uncomfortable, unnatural, and downright weird to completely ignore your own needs in deference to the needs of the company. But that’s what the startup is all about. The startup has the possibility to become the thing that will take care of you (and your family), but only if its needs are met. Ignoring the company’s needs, even for a moment, can be disastrous.
4. Finish What you Start
At Ringside Networks, we finished what we started, which was to build a world-class open source social platform and related technologies. A full Series A, which we failed to get, would have given us a whole new set of goals and challenges, but we didn’t make it that far. Even so, I am tremendously proud of the team and what we were able to accomplish together in such a short amount of time. Nobody new what Ringside Networks would produce at the beginning of this year. I’ll be the first to say that what we produced was just the “table stakes” to play in the social software game, but we built what we set out to build:
- A social software platform that supports the 2 major social platform APIs (Facebook F8 and OpenSocial)
- Integrations to map identities across several major social platforms and applications
- Several innovative social software distribution models
- A technique for producing a social software “cloud” to easily integrate into web sites
All in all, working on Ringside Networks has been a fulfilling experience for me. I met a bunch of great folks in both the technology sphere, working on social software and services, and in the venture capital arena, working on financing and technology business strategy.
Ringside will be missed, but now I’m ready to get back in the ring!