After four years, we shut down our final product, Turntable Live, in early January. A lot happened over those four years. We built four separate products (stickybits, turntable.fm, Piki, Turntable Live) and I had the privilege of working with so many amazingly talented people. I’m incredibly proud of the products we built together and thankful for the new friendships created.
I used to say the hardest part of running a startup is hiring. I learned that shutting down is harder. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a light switch. It used to be on and now it’s off. But the wind-down of a company takes time and it’s something every startup founder fears could happen. You see the end on the horizon and work as hard as you can to push further away from it. As it gets closer and you realize there’s no other option, you begin to figure out the logistics of shutting down. Layoffs are the most painful part. You then have all this stuff. Laptops, TVs, monitors, dishes, a drink refrigerator, tables, desks, chairs, a lease, and tons of monthly services. Slowly over several weeks, you work to get rid of all of it. And it’s heartbreaking to see it all get slowly torn apart.
Shutting down has shown me the ugly side of startups. It’s a side where some investors break all communication or turn against you. It’s a side where close allies turn away. It’s a side where all the promises you made to your team go unfulfilled.
All of this is chock full of important lessons. It shows you how the people around you handle both the good and the bad. You see the people who will stick by you, believe in you, and are ready for round 2 (or 3 or 4).
Turntable.fm grew into a wonderful community that spawned thousands of friendships and even a few marriages (including an employee to someone he met on turntable). We employed a team that varied in size from 2 to 20 for four years. We created a type of music sharing that still exists in products inspired by us.
Ultimately, I didn’t heed the lessons of so many failed music startups. It’s an incredibly expensive venture to pursue and a hard industry to work with. We spent more than a quarter of our cash on lawyers, royalties and services related to supporting music. It’s restrictive. We had to shut down our growth because we couldn’t launch internationally. It’s a long road. It took years to get label deals in place and it also took months of engineering time to properly support them (time which could have been spent on product).
When we were first launching our servers, we needed a good naming convention for them. I jokingly thought of naming them after failed music startups. At first it seemed cruel, but it grew on me because I wanted it to remind us of the lessons from the past and also thought maybe it would be good luck (like telling an actor to go break a leg). The joke wasn’t lost on us when we named our final server ‘turntablefm.turntable.fm’.
The key to all of this is to keep building. No one has any idea what is going to work and what’s not. Don’t listen to the people who think they know. Sure, this one didn’t pan out, but each failure helps us navigate the thousands of decisions we will need to make for the next one. That knowledge helps us build better things that will last longer.
And that’s what I will continue to do. It’s customary for people to take a couple months off in this position. I decided instead to jump right back in. I’ve been working with a couple people and started a new company. We were able to quickly build our first app. It’s called Ketchup. But I don’t want this post to be about that, so you can read about Ketchup here if you’re curious.