The Ultimate Failures that Killed My Last Startup

The Attempt

It was July 2008. We had just signed all the docs to close the sale of ParentsClick to Lifetime Television, their first digital acquisition. Our flagship products, MothersClick (a social network for moms) and Mom Blog Network (the largest mom blogger network at the time), along with FathersClick, and our nationwide network of parenting sites, were now part of the largest TV network for women, Lifetime Television.

To us, this acquisition was a match made in heaven. With our technology and online network for moms, combined with Lifetime’s massive TV reach, we thought we had an unstoppable, winning combination. Little did I know, we were completely wrong.

We didn’t know it, but at the time of our acquisition, in 2008, Lifetime Television was simultaneously in the process of acquiring Project Runway from Bravo TV. Our acquirers had a different end game in mind for us. They knew Bravo TV didn’t leverage their website for the TV show, and Lifetime figured they could crush it connecting Project Runway with an engaging online social network for Project Runway fans.

During the fall of 2008, we opened Lifetime’s new office in San Francisco. We found a wonderful space in Potrero Hill, with huge windows, opening up to a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge in the distance. The following year, Zynga would open a small office, across the hall from us, around the corner from Zynga’s first office. By 2010, they would lease almost the entirety of our building and would make numerous offers for our space—the most premier space in the entire building.

It was during the opening of our new office in 2008 that Lifetime told us about our first project post acquisition: the Project Runway community website, to be powered by our infrastructure.

This was awesome. Being the CTO, and now a Director of Technology for Lifetime Television, I was stoked to put our infrastructure to the works. 100,000s of page views an hour we had to be ready for, being able to withstand super-spiky TV traffic. A tech guy’s dream come true.

And then, on a beautiful day in late November, an email came across our inboxes: Stop. Change of plans..

What Went Wrong

Huh? We were full steam ahead, contractors and developers hired, and now a change of plans?

We didn’t know, but a legal battle was ensuing over the rights of Project Runway between NBC Universal, Bravo, and Lifetime. So, we stopped the work we were doing. We were told we now needed to build a different community site, one for every Lifetime TV show, not just Project Runway.

But something about the change didn’t feel right. It felt like we were trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. It wasn’t made to fit like that. Or rather, we hadn’t planned that, we couldn’t turn on a dime and deliver something in 6 weeks, could we?

Turns out, it didn’t have to make sense. Our acquisition contract and earnout stipulated that we repurpose our infrastructure for any and all of Lifetime’s needs. It never said it had to make sense.

That Christmas, we still weren’t done pivoting all of the Project Runway work for the generic Lifetime community. I still remember working on Christmas day through New Years. It was a miserable holiday to say the least.

I was working even harder than when we were a startup. I didn’t know that was possible. But this time, I couldn’t see the results or understand Lifetime’s strategy. This was crazy. And what about our the websites Lifetime had acquired? 6 months after our acquisition and our flagship products, MothersClick and Mom Blog Network, were left largely untouched. 6 months. That’s an eternity in the online world.

We were so busy attending to Lifetime’s own community needs, our communities were languishing. And finally, sometime in early 2009, Lifetime had noticed. We had finished the Lifetime community website. The Project Runway acquisition was still up in the air, and now we had the bandwidth to focus on finally combining Lifetime’s forces with ParentsClick.

We knew what needed to be done.

We had no idea that Lifetime thought they knew too. Lifetime didn’t like our plans to improve the branding of MothersClick. I remember them distinctly saying “can we do less pink and blue? Maybe appeal to a wider audience than moms, like women in general?”

Our site was built for moms. Our network, for parents. Wasn’t that large and focused enough? We would kill our brand. Our messaging would be mixed. A site for moms, but also women? So we kicked off numerous brainstorm sessions with the team at Lifetime. In San Francisco, in NYC, and weekly over the phone.

So much planning. Brainstorming. Back and forth. It was wearing me out. And why? I never really understood.

Eventually I did. Lifetime was afraid of failure. No one wanted to take responsibility. How do you solve that? Hold meetings. Lots of them. Then there is no one to blame.

Halfway through 2009, we launched the new MothersClick. From at technical standpoint, it was faster and leaner than ever. We were finally running Drupal 6 and editing and managing content was a breeze. But from a consumer point of view, it was a complete mess. It looked and navigated like a magazine for women. But it didn’t speak to the true nature of the content: a site for moms, by moms.

It didn’t feel right.

We had alienated our users for months working on other projects, and now we spring on them a completely redesigned site that takes away the very essence of what was working, to appeal to a larger audience of women?

Lessons Learned

An overnight success? How about an overnight failure that was a year in the making.

The first failure.

But that was only the beginning.

Soon after that launch, Project Runway came to Lifetime TV. And Lifetime TV merged with A&E Television. It was late summer 2009, more than a year after our acquistion. And we were to start once again on the Project Runway community site. We finished it later that fall and launched it to mediocre, fanfare at best. Not the smashing success like everyone hoped for.

The second failure.

From late 2009 to early 2010, we finally focused 100% on MothersClick and Mom Blog Network. For the former, we simplified the site, improved the messaging, and made it feel more like a mom-site again. It helped a little, but it was too late. The damage was done.

This 2nd redesign of a site didn’t do anything to move the needle. Our community was gone. The internet had shifted: Facebook and mobile were booming and our approach was antique. We were too busy with our heads down on other projects to notice the trend.

The third failure.

Design by committee failure at its best. Hundreds of thousands dollars, gone. Numerous contracting agencies fired and bridges burned. Developers quit.

My pride and joy for nearly 5 years was now a hunk of junk.

To top it off, our earnout and bonuses were tied to success product launches for our flagship products, successful communities built, and a flourishing team. We had none of that. And it wasn’t because we couldn’t. It’s because we listened all too closely to our bosses at Lifetime and didn’t stand ground on what we believed. So we lost nearly all of our earn out.

The fourth failure.

We fought it. But after 2.5 years since acquisition, the fight within me was gone. We had built a wonderful company, small, but wonderful. Had sold it to a billion dollar company. And watched it crumbled, failure after failure, from within. So I quit my role as Director of Technology in 2011 and moved to Detroit and I’ve never looked back.

The burning lessons learned are still fresh in my memory. Keepsakes that I’m passing on to the startup companies I’ve invested in and mentor.

The words "fail faster" hang above my desk at work.

Story By

ted-crop-best

Ted Serbinski

Ted Serbinski is a Partner at Detroit Venture Partners, where he leads investments in early stage software startups. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential, emerging venture technology partners in the Midwest and a key player leading the startup renaissance in Detroit. Previously, he was co-founder and CTO of ParentsClick, acquired by Lifetime Television. Ted is an internationally recognized web architect that has been building websites for 15+ years, including 8 years as a lead, open source developer, for Drupal. Ted earned a Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering from Cornell University. Ted currently blogs about being both a founder and a VC, sharing his insights on his 52 Startup Lessons website.

One response to “The Ultimate Failures that Killed My Last Startup

  1. Thank you for this outstanding story! “Fail early and often” is an entrepreneur’s road to success.

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