Most startups fail, and most fail for a combinaison of reasons. But in the startup culture failing is mainly about learning, not about putting your head under the pillow, so I quite like these startup postmortems, as they’re a great way to look back at things and see what lessons we can salvage from the failure.
We (my wife Amélie and myself, and our friend Jean-André) started this company, “citronours”, in the autumn of 2013 with two related projects:
- B2C: doing books for tablets. Initially, for ladies age 20-45 with contents in the DIY area. We ended up doing 4 books: 2 about sewing, 1 about DIY jewelry, 1 about origami home deco.
- B2B: armed with this proof-of-concept, we’d go see publishers to help them widen the spectrum of their offer by adding apps to the mix.
We felt we had a good mix of skills to do this: Jean-André is a developer, I’d been a CEO before and can do front-end development, and Amélie was the content person for our project: she is the author of a book on sewing, and has had a blog on the subject for a while.
When we showed our app-books to people, the feedback we had was good. People told us we had quality content, the app format did add something to the mix, not just videos, but the fluidity and usability of the UI, the comfort of having something downloaded and installed on your tablet, the integration with other apps on the device (pinterest for instance), etc.
So on a technical level, our project did work and we did build a product that people, when we tested it with them, seemed to like.
But we just couldn’t market the thing. Our authors all had blogs and twitter accounts, and pinterest and what have you. They were all members of our target audience. But not only is it not enough, in our experience it doesn’t really make a difference. Your author’s online audience, his friends and fans will certainly cheer and “like” when the book comes out, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales.
So you have to do the traditional PR thing. We did, hiring a PR pro for the release of the first two books, working on partnerships with supply companies in the DIY space, etc. We tried to reach out to journalists, of course, but boy, is that a time-consuming affair… We struggled. Those interested in the “app” part wouldn’t talk about it because of the subject matter of the books (sewing, origami, etc.). Those interested in the subject matter had difficulties with the app. Also we were surprised to see that many journalists didn’t have easy access to ipads and had difficulties with the technical aspect of an app. One asked if we could send her a .pdf version of our app…
We quickly realized that marketing is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You are not really trying to sell one particular book, you are trying to build a brand. That takes time, both as in “let’s put someone on this full time” and in “for a year”.
And to build a brand, you also need to have not just an app, but a catalog of apps: not 4 apps, but rather 40. Which would take us many many months.
But investing more in marketing and ramping up production was not financially feasible with the money that we had.
Lesson 1: building the thing is rarely the most difficult part. But selling... A classic.
Openair publishing is doing what we aimed to do in the B2C space with books as apps. They’ve been bought by inkling recently, who just announced some layoffs in that area.
So is there a market for book-apps? After the citronours experiment I still don’t have a definitive answer to that question: I don’t know. I still think there might be, but my feeling is that nobody really knows for sure at this stage. If there isn’t, my hunch is that it’s not because another, more “old-fashioned” type of book will prevail on tablet devices and phones, I don’t think. It’s because “books” will never be more than a very niche market on tablets and people will just spend their time/money on other types of contents for their devices: games, movies, reading Medium posts, etc.
But anyway we certainly underestimated the amount of capital that would be needed to carry this out, especially on the marketing front. So after we realized this, the question became: do we leave the B2C proposition at that, just using it as a proof-of-concept to focus on a B2B proposition, or do we want to try and raise the needed capital to go from the product that we have to a real publishing company?
It takes time to raise capital, 6 months to a year. We had enough money to last that long, but barely, and if we ended up being unsuccessful at raising funds, we’d be thoroughly cleaned out of our savings. For personal reasons (see below), we decided the risk was too great, not to raise capital and fail, but to fail to raise capital. So, we felt B2C wasn’t the way forward for us.
But we had a demonstrated product: could we use it to show others what we could do for them?
The premise that book publishers would be interested in doing apps if the cost was low enough and if the app part could be plugged into their existing workflow… turned out to be wrong.
Publishers might do apps here and there of course, for some prestige, PR-motivated operation for instance (e.g. in France, La Martinière doing an app about the Louis Vuitton brand), but they were not interested in doing apps routinely. Why? I wrote about it from a technical standpoint in another blog post, about the epub mantra (written, needless to say, after we decided that road was closed). But the gist of it is that they care a lot about boundaries. And want, at all cost, the “book world” to be an entity that lives on as such in the digital world. And apps are not part of that world because they leave too many partners of the book world out, especially bookshops, and include many new partners not of the book world, like app stores, often in a central position. I’m really skeptical about this, to say the least: in my view no industry whatsoever will transition “as is” into the digital world. Precisely because that’s what digital is all about: it reshapes industries. But hey, French publishers seem to think otherwise, that’s certainly their call: they think the “book world” can be a self-sustaining entity in tomorrow’s digital world; I doubt it. Time will tell.
Lesson 2: you know it, in theory, but it’s not that obvious to actually do -> test your assumptions with all your prospective customers, not just the B2C customers.
Lesson 3: the guy is bleeding, gangrene has settled in the foot, you come with a saw and try to sell it to him. You certainly think it would be for his own good, but you know what? That’s stupid: he won’t buy the goddamn saw.
Does it mean there wasn’t room for a B2B business for our product? Actually there was. With businesses and organisations who have rich contents, book-length contents, but are not book-publishers and don’t really have a stake in the book ecosystem. Libraries with patrimonial contents, people in big consulting agencies who publish high-end reports, newspapers who might want to collect a year’s worth of content (articles, graphs, videos, photographs, etc) on a subject... And we actually did a nice project along those lines, which helped us recover some of the money we spent on citronours and gave us time to think it through.
So we felt we certainly could pursue the B2B option with clients outside of the book industry. My wife was in the project for the B2C content in the first place, so she’d stop and get another job, but Jean-André and I would be able to continue. This option was certainly viable. We could be a design agency with a specialty in apps with rich contents. But in the end that’s not a very deep specialty, and we felt the numerous web agencies on the market, especially those already doing at least some form of “web documentaries”, would soon catch up with us. We felt we had a head start, but, again, not very big. So: doable short term, hard to sustain long term.
The personal stuff
At the end of the day, the decision to continue or stop is always very personal. It’s less about metrics than about the gut feeling that you have about pivoting or folding. Metrics certainly help, but they can’t replace the desire that you have to double down on your project.
My wife and I were both in this, and even though it worked out fine on a personal level, it’s still a bad idea, simply because your partner can’t financially back you up while you’re doing this. You’re both into it, and the level of financial risk you take is thus greater.
It’s hard for people who have never done startups, or at least been free-lancers for any significant amount of time, to understand what it really means. The level of commitment that it requires. The stress level, the ups and downs. It’s certainly not for everyone. I’m not saying this like it’s the best thing and not everyone is up to the task. It’s rather that it fits certain types of personalities much better than others.
And right around the time we had to decide what to do with this startup, came job offers for both my wife and I to work at the Université des Antilles, the French-speaking university based in the caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
That’s when you have your gut test: do we want to double down on this startup project and put more of our savings into it? Or do we want to have a salary and live on a tropical island?
Lesson 4: You can almost always “pivot” your startup and continue. But that’s not really about that. It’s about the life you want. If you look closely at the picture at the top of this post, you’ll see a black, blurred dot at the center of the image: that’s the head of our daughter in the waves of the caribbean sea. Pretty cool.
Lesson 5: Whatever you decide, my guess is you won’t regret having done a startup. I certainly don’t. Chances are you’ll be a better person at the end of a project like this. You’ll have learned a tremendous amount. Technically, because by definition in a startup you’ll have to do a lot by yourself, you can’t call “marketing”, or “accounting”, etc: by and large, you are marketing, accounting, etc. You’ll learn a lot on a personal level as well, because you’ll probably have met a wider range of people that you’d have met if you’d stayed in your old job. And because the relationships you’ll have with these people will have an intensity that is rarely matched in a more standard work environment.
Specifically, doing citronours, I learned a lot with Jean-André. He is a great developer, and a great person. If you have iOS or Android work to do, but really any dev work, you should definitely get in touch with him.