Saturday, September 26, 2015

Startup Roller Coaster: Like "Quirky" Another One Bites the Dust

ShopTOS TOS Logo
April 10, 2013 was my last blog post here. I return with a new post one year after leaving a startup where I spent a year and a half working with a team to build a digital presence and customer experience for The Outdoor Shopper (ShopTOS), an outdoor shopping television show. We experienced rapid growth with a small team and an even smaller investment. In that short time we accomplished the following:
  • 840 percent website traffic growth and 1,365 percent e-commerce sales growth in six months
  • 618 percent Facebook fan growth and 1,546 percent Twitter follower growth in nine months
  • 2,556 percent product catalogue growth in one year
  • Daily, sometimes multiple times a day, show airings on notable channels like Pursuit Channel (amazing people with whom to work), the Outdoor Channel, and the Sportsman Channel
  • Implemented a digital content, advertising, and video production strategy that showcased outdoor product inventors and their products (fantastic people like Shawn Malloy of Altera Alpaca), created a direct manufacturer to customer relationship, and connected people to outdoor experts and celebrities like Jimmy Houston (who is absolutely delightful), Bruce "The Alligator Man" Mitchell (who is as genuine and sweet as they come), Kinion Bankston (who's raw voice, candor, and big personality make him a favorite among many), Nancy Jo Adams (who is a talented, innovative female presence in a space that still underserves women), Jay Ducote (who is just as fun and "hugable" off screen as he is on), and Tom Buck (who is whip smart, kindhearted, and has a great literary voice) 
jimmy houston, alison sigmon
Author on the production set with Jimmy Houston
The concept was good with its production, television broadcast, and drop shipment commerce model, but alas, TV broadcast and production costs, among other things, proved too much for the business. LOTS of people -- employees, vendors, and contractors -- did NOT get paid and investors lost money in the end. Some of us employees and contractors worked over seven months for NO pay or a third pay rate. Let me emphasize: This is not a complaint; we made the decision with eyes wide open. It was our choice. We did it because we were deeply committed to the concept, devoted to the people and manufacturers involved, and profoundly loyal to each other, but more about that at the end of this post...

Although we didn't come close to the $185M raised by Quirky, a crowdsourced invention start-up company that filed for bankruptcy last week, size, valuation, etc don't really matter when company fails. It's painful for all involved.

For the life of the venture, we moved fast and furiously to build and migrate to a new e-commerce platform and CMS platform, implement a business strategy roadmap, establish a digital presence, and connect inventors and customers. It all seems a bit like a blur from platform migration, content publishing, process creation, team building, and rebranding to marketing, advertisement, vendor management, and product sales.

recycling electronic trash
As I emerge from the startup haze (you know exactly what I mean if you've done it), I'm reminded of the pitfalls to avoid and process steps one should never skip. Looking back on the experience, I can see we were in the midst of an entertainment and viewing evolution. Television remains the 800 lbs gorilla, but it was clear during the operation of ShopTOS that a viewing and interaction shift was firmly underway. We were working feverishly to get ahead of the trend by offering the show online, changing the show format to better accommodate viewer interests, and aligning broadcasting with seasonal experiences. We were also working to upgrade and refine the product catalogue to support niche, innovative, hard to find items that would take us out of the no-contest, margin draining competition with Cabela's, Bass Pro Shop, and Amazon. Basically, we were working to pivot the business, but we ran out of money in the process. It's a familiar tale - like Quirky and so many others.

Everyone says startups are exciting, gut wrenching, and unforgiving which is absolutely true - this was my third startup so it's a well-worn path by now. Each time I think I know what I'm getting into only to be surprised (again). It's not unlike being in war, which I experienced during the first Gulf War. It's a roller coaster of issues, situations, and events that pummel scrappy but devoted little teams who somehow find a way to get up each day only to do it all over again in the face of these things:
roller coaster
  • Tons of ambiguity
  • Emotional ups and downs
  • False starts
  • Fast planning and even faster crashes
  • Lack of information
  • Risky decisions
  • Never enough communication
  • Uncertainty about what the pigs and the bears are (Read The Mission, the Men, and Me for more about that)
  • Never ending list of "high priority" things to do
  • Limited funds
I was reminded that some things stay the same no matter the type of startup you join. You'll always need:
  • Talent to get the work done
  • Discipline to work on a lot of things a little bit everyday
  • Wisdom to make changes rapidly in response to issues, insights, and situations 
  • Patience to work the plan (and stick to it)
  • Awareness to know when to get out of your own way (thank you, Wendy Lea for that touchstone reminder)
  • Trust the people you hired and listen to them
  • Understanding of margins and operational costs (budgets matter even in the beginning!) 
  • Analysis of the numbers early and often
  • Processes for the repeatable activities in your business (recreating is a time suck) 
  • Vision to build a narrative the team can get behind
  • A very thick skin
  • Ability to pivot 
  • Recognize when tenacity is a mask for denial
Each startup reveals something. Every time I go in wondering what will be different. I wonder what we will learn or be reminded of as the team moves through the startup process. Well, this time was no different. The slippery slope of the business began in February 2014. During that time we tried everything we could to save the business, but deep down we knew we were treading water if we didn't get a serious infusion of cash. In the meantime, it was the people and the relationships that kept the business afloat probably too long past what was fair to all involved.

After this experience, I am again reminded that people truly are the greatest asset of any business. At ShopTOS we all were quite different as individuals, but underneath we had the shared values that served the business in the best and worst times: devotion, commitment, tenacity, adaptability, and fierce loyalty. The people behind the scenes in any business are the real heroes. 

We've all moved on. Some of us are still working together on new, exciting projects that will no doubt yield more colorful war stories. In our new business we are looking at resurrecting a software concept for human capital development and management for which I had a provisional patent back in 2007. The time seems right with the new tech out there to circle back to it.

Would I do it all over again? You a heartbeat. Roller coasters fun. ;)