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The world will end in 2012: I fucked up.

from Mantova

StyleJam is closing down. It’s closing down mainly because of my poor management. Don’t worry, it’s ok, that was my first startup and I never bought the “open a company - magic happens - you’re Zuck” loop. Shit happens.

I still managed to learn something out of what happened, and I’ll gladly share it with everyone else. I don’t think that what I’m going to write is that original or interesting, but I decided to leave the classic “note to myself” in order to, at least, move to a different set of mistakes with my next adventure without repeating the old ones.

For clarity: StyleJam was a platform web designers could use to host their portfolios. The “cool” thing about it is that the only thing we did was generating the HTML with the data the designer provided, and then let him be completely free when styling it by uploading his own CSS and images. It was some kind of CSSZenGarden on steroids.

Do stuff people need.

First thing first, the main reason StyleJam went down was that it was unneeded. I discovered that as soon as mid November of last year, after talking with a good amount of web designers.

Someone might think that discovering something like this 2 months after release is incredibly stupid. I must agree with that.

I started conducting interviews before writing the first line of code, unfortunately I did that through my ego. Asking about a problem and being sure about the solution is a very very very bad idea.

The main thing that should have started ringing every kind of alarm bell was that during the interviews StyleJam was incredibly cool, but always for someone else. UX people said it was great for web developers, web developers said it was great for UX people. Older web designers told me it was wonderful for younger ones, younger ones didn’t want to compete with older ones. A guy I highly respect told me he wanted to be in control of everything, but that it was good for the vast majority who didn’t.

If you want an interview to be useful, you’re going to need personal direct commitment, not a guess. I’m very thankful to the people I interviewed, they would have been very helpful if I actually read and understood what they were telling me.

Refuse the temptation to be cool.

One of the things that struck me the most in this whole adventure was the fact that I’ve been completely unable to reduce the product to its minimal terms. I kept concentrating on the how, and ignored the why.

If you reduce StyleJam to its minimal terms what you have is a lesser Behance. Yes, designers could have appreciated the fact that they were actually using their real skills to produce their own portfolios instead of only uploading a ton of screenshots, but what are the real benefits?

When we discussed internally the whole idea it was “hey, then it will be pretty much like a real website isn’t it? It will be some kind of useful CSSZenGarden!”. The fact I love CSS and design and the fact that it was super cool to have a platform based on CSS completely blindfolded me.

It’s quite embarassing now, but web designers tend to make websites, and this makes the whole proposition a moot point. Hey, I make websites for a living, what a wonderful platform we have here that makes me do what I already do 24/7. Gosh.

Add to this a very steep learning curve and you have a recipe for disaster.

Here I must really thank Andy Rutledge for pointing that out when asked to be one of our advisors. Unfortunately I had to learn it the hard way. Andy, once again, you were right. We didn’t have any disagreement for what it worths, I was in love and you told me my girlfriend was cheating on me.

Bottom line: be useful, not cool.

Be evil.

Sorry people, but I must admit: being nice and patient definitely doesn’t pay off. Not even close.

I had one iteration available without even knowing it, just because I trusted the wrong people. I have no knowledge of any startup that succeeded at the first try: I am not using Twitter through SMS, I’m not looking at “thefacebook” because I’m a student, and I’m not playing Flickr.

If everybody that had to give me a service actually did it, or if everybody that actually had to work on the project really worked, I would maybe be telling a different story. Unfortunately there’s a good and nice guy under this BOFH shell, and I avoided contrast at all costs. I was wrong, if you want to make a business you have to become a businessman. Most important: friendship is a two way relationship - once I will get it, I promise.

Once again, talk is very cheap: you want personal and direct commitment, and you want it by facts, not chitchat.

I don’t say this because ”I’ve been screwed”, I was the CEO and I had to make it happen. I say this because if you don’t insist and you don’t pretend people to deliver what they promised you’re hurting yourself, your company, your investors, and making your startup’s environment very unhealthy and unpleasant.

Beware of shortcuts.

In the web design industry there are a lot of important personalities, and one of my strategies included offering shares to one of these gurus in exchange of some advisory.

Doing something like that is rather normal, my mistake was relying way too much on this people, especially after discovering that most of them are, ^cough^, a little bit volatile.

In the best case, a discussion was started and after a while the guy just stopped answering. I mean, seriously, like you’re talking with someone and suddenly he drops down dead. Impolite, a little bit childish, but still more or less normal.

What’s weird is when one of these guys actually accepted to be my advisor, I paid a lawyer to give him shares, I told my team and my investors, and again, he completely disappeared. I’m not going to say who it was, just trust me, big big name. He didn’t even answer to a “Merry Christmas” email. And before you ask, we’re talking about at most 6 emails in 6 months, I definitely wasn’t bugging him all day long. I’m not whining about him changing his mind, I just think that it’s very bad not telling me. Ok, you changed your mind, it’s not like I’m going to do something or be angry, it happens. Just tell me.

Do not rely on shortcuts, as I already said, talk is cheap, lots of people is willing to jump on the winner’s bandwagon, not many are willing to do the work, even if it’s only answering a couple of emails or telling a bunch of friends about you.

This is it, all my mistakes on a single page, for future reference and in all its shame. I hope it’s of some help for who’s starting right now, and I also hope it will be useful for me in the future.