Be Careful What You Wish For; You Might Accidentally Launch a Startup
- David Gillespie
- On May 21, 2012
A funny thing happened in April. A funny thing that was amazing at the time, that quickly lost all of its meaning. Or rather, not that it lost its meaning, but I over-valued it at the time and eventually saw it for what it was.
Late March some friends and I launched a project called Shitter. It would take a Twitter feed of your choosing, either your own updates, a friend’s, or some other mix you wanted, and print it onto toilet paper. The tagline was “Social media has never been so disposable.” It was part product, part commentary, and as Venture Beat’s Ben Popper put it, bordered on performance art. Of all the things it was however, it wasn’t one very specific and important thing: it wasn’t a business I wanted to run.
In fact we never really thought about Shitter as a business. Shitter had one purpose and one purpose only: make as much noise as possible for a company some friends and I formed called Collector’s Edition. That is the business that I want to run, not the social media equivalent of paying someone to slip on a banana peel.
As it turned out, while Shitter was an idea to raise attention for ourselves, it was itself a business that needed to be run. People paid for rolls, orders were sent to a printer in Illinois, customs forms needed to be filled out when deliveries were destined for locations outside the US. We had, without quite meaning to, found ourselves having to develop understandings of logistics, run customer service, pay suppliers, and do a bunch of things you don’t really think about but that any business that sells physical products online has to do. None of us had put our hands up for that business, yet that was, whether we liked it or not, the business we were in. Not in working on the next idea, but trying to get a straight answer out of an indifferent supplier as to when an order might arrive in Mexico.
I know, I know, it seems obscene that we didn’t consider that we were starting a very different business, why did we even go down that path in the first place?
Because of the thing that I over-valued, and the reason we had done Shitter in the first place: we thought it would garner a bunch of attention in the media, a hypothesis confirmed first by the technology press, and then once again when a writer from Forbes called. At first it couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a wrong number, and by the time the call was done, we had achieved everything we wanted. Inherent in the article Forbes would proceed to publish however was the crux of our issue: we had to deliver on the joke, and that meant delivering a product.
The ensuing weeks were nothing but painful. The joke, it seemed was on us, and all the press quickly became a lesson unto itself. If the saying in newspapers is that today’s headlines line tomorrow’s rubbish bins, then it is doubly-true online – but it happens not a day later, but mere hours. The media coverage was the goal, the net result was using Google to translate Cyrillic characters in order to decipher an address in Moscow for the US Postal Service.
When we think about starting a business, we get consumed with a problem and try to solve it. We don’t think about all the things that come with it. Rent, invoices, managing relationships, and something I specifically encountered for the first time, separating the time for work and the time to step out of it and just be David. I realised plenty before me had focused on solving a problem, and then needed help from other products that had been born out of other people identifying a problem they wanted to solve. Some kind of virtuous cycle (at its best anyway).
It’s been a tremendous lesson in being careful what you wish for, and that even the smallest of small businesses can consume you in ways you didn’t expect. We’re going to suspend Shitter indefinitely and get to work on the next thing. All that attention was good for the ego, but there’s very little evidence that it was good for much else. Collector’s Edition is ultimately a business that generates ideas for other businesses, and our mistake was thinking Shitter was an idea too good to give away. The best of them can transform businesses.
I just didn’t want it to transform mine.
Article By David Gillespie
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