“I was a startup zombie (for 5 years) because people liked my idea”

Traction is like this: if you have to ask whether you have it, it’s not there. But it’s so easy to believe that you have traction, because everybody tells you they like their idea. Or worse: the media cuddles you, until death follows. It’s the story behind the blog post of the founder of neigh*borrow, over on PandoDaily.

It’s also a story about the sharing economy, that has been the subject of some debate lately. The question is whether any more viable Airbnb models are out there. My own theory is that if you want to build a business of the size that a VC would appreciate, you need to focus on big ticket items. That means houses, cars, boats, and probably islands, interstellar aircraft, jewellery and designer dresses (as long as the insurance premium doesn’t prevent you from making a profit).

Way back in 2006, Adam Berk had the idea of an inventory site for neighborhood stuff – drills, bikes, wheelbarrows, hedge trimmers, all that stuff that everybody buys and then puts it in his garage, to use it once a year. What happened, he says, was that people proclaimed to like the idea – and that’s what made him agonize for 5 years about the idea:

“Then CNBC put us on TV. People liked our idea, and this, it turned out, was probably the worst thing that could have happened. It exacerbated the next five years of what Lean Startup guru Eric Ries calls “land of the living dead.

The problem was people liked the idea of our idea, not our solution. Journalists flocked to write about us, but they never signed up for the service. Gatekeepers of Internet contests and startup events wanted us there, but didn’t use it. Even the users who wrote us emails saying how we were awesome I got emails like that every week didn’t make an effort to lead their communities to neighborrow. We were great in theory but not in practice.”

This tendency of people to express support but not show it, says Berk, was a disconnect that he and his co-founder just couldn’t reconcile. Also, it made them waste a ton of energy on questions that ultimately didn’t matter:

“Maybe we should raise more money. Or we just needed more media coverage, now that we’ve nailed that last A/B test. Perhaps it was our design, which didn’t pop. No, wait, it might be that we were too focused and should expand beyond bikes and drills.We instituted marginal improvements to design and focused our customers from apartment buildings to colleges to treehuggers and beyond, seeking a core, enthusiastic user base.

For 18 months we kept cycling around different combinations and permutations of customer focus, business model focus, product focus, feature focus, etc. We kept pulling the lever of the startup slot machine, but it was years before we asked what problem we were actually solving. Theoretically we were solving 50 different problems but actually solving none.

[...] We were so close yet so far, and just like today with other sharing startups in the news, the cheerleading and hype continued. People wanted us to succeed, but that isn’t enough to achieve success.

I continue to believe in the concept of neighborrow. I am also fairly confident that a supply focused, inventory-based platform for consumer goods like drills and vacuums is not a “scaleable startup,” as Steve Blank would call it.”

The big lesson? Solve a problem, says Berk. You can read the whole blog at: PandoDaily. Do you have a story about how you spent time on a startup that didn’t have traction? Please share it in the comments.

[photo: Steve Jurvetson, Flickr]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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