So, if you hadn’t seen the news FireAnt was acquired by Sonic Mountain (Odeo). You can read recaps of the news on two of my favorite blog networks, NewTeeVee (run by Om Malik), and Tech Crunch (by Mike Arrington).
I came to be involved in FireAnt through my connections to Jay Dedman and Josh Kinberg. We had some discussions at Vloggercon in July of 2005 which extended into the following months involving my helping them get FireAnt off the ground. I had started a project I was calling MediaFeedr, which would poll RSS feeds, examine any links, and then develop a new RSS 2.0 feed with enclosures for downloading into FireAnt. The theory was that you could put any feed into MediaFeedr and then come out with any linked content as enclosures. In reality, it never really got out of testing, but the initial feedback was good and I was proud of the code and the idea.
I was incredibly proud of the work I had done, but even by that point it was becoming obvious that the things we had thought were important weren’t what the market felt was important. YouTube had in the course of a year become huge, and flash-based web video was where the traffic and the money was at. The idea of aggregating different forms of video (of which Flash was incredibly hard to play on a PC based client and for the most part no sites supported RSS 2.0 with media enclosures) was falling by the way-side. After a successful launch but a limit in the amount of video content to be obtained through podcasting, I left in March of 2006 shortly before Katie was born to pursue other opportunities and to limit my workschedule to spend time with my newborn child.
What went wrong then? I’ve had over a year to reflect on this, and I think I can boil it down to a few choice areas where we wrong:
- Too much focus on the business and not enough focus on the technology
- We brought in BizDev people very early in the process, in fact before I even officially joined the company.
- Our BizDev people were unsuccessful at selling the technology. Simple fact is, they were opportunists who were looking to make a quick buck and really didn’t believe in the company other than they thought they had a gravy-train to ride on. The early stages of the startup should focus on the technology first and the business second.
- Poor initial design of the business and ownership structure
- The initial design of the business was a 5 way partnership between two visionaries, two developers and one business development guy. First of all, equal partnerships never work. There was no clear leader and far too many chiefs without enough Indians. When I was brought in, the initial founders were reticent to give up more of their ownership structure since it was already fairly deluted as it was.
- We bet wrong
- We bet people wanted offline content and simple aggregation of feeds across many websites across the Internet. Fact was, people wanted one destination in their web browser to view content. YouTube won, we lost.
There were great people involved in the founding of the company, but there were just too many. The next startup I do will have a clear leader, a core set of technology people, and we’ll worry about making money last. There just isn’t enough of a small company to split it 7 ways. It should be split three ways and then a quarter left over for the rest to come. The development people, the ones doing the work to get the technology off the ground should come first. I’m slightly bitter over the fact that I worked hundreds of hours and at the end of the whole story I ended up with virtually none of the company. The technology I developed for them was critical to the initial success of the company and I felt from the beginning that even thought my work was highly valued, the ownership percentage was never ponied up. This is probably why I left early and didn’t stick with the project. I think had I have stuck with it and not run out of personal funds we probably could have been much more successful. There were also numerous problems with the client development founders who were also having to work day jobs. I was the best suited financially at that time due to my severance with Cingular to work for no money, and I was rewarded the least.
While this may seem harsh to the people who were involved with the company, I want to point out that I feel no ill-will towards the people who I worked with. Mistakes were made all around, and I have the highest respect for Josh, Jay, Daniel and Erik who were involved in the project during my tenure. They are all excellent people, and I’d work with all of them again. I only note these things largely for my own reference, and I point them out so that if I were to ever team up with these people again we can have an open and honest discussion of our mistakes so we don’t repeat them again. This was a learning experience for all of us, and I hope that some time in the future I can find a way to work with these people again.
I’d especially like to point out Josh’s effort. Josh stuck with FireAnt from the beginning to the end. Josh sacrificed far more than any of the rest of us, even delaying his wedding so that he could see this through to the end. I consider Josh a close personal friend, and I’d jump at the chance to work with him again. Josh is an excellent person of the highest moral caliber. Josh has endured personal threats, personal hardship, and he has endured and completed this project while the rest of us moved on. I have the utmost respect for the sacrifices he made, and I tip my hat to the Sonic Mountain team who more than the technology we developed got the best part of FireAnt when they got Josh.
You can still see the technology I developed for FireAnt at getfireant.com. Some of our more unscrupulous shareholders stole fireant.tv as part of a petty personal squabble, but at least it’s still available there. To those of you shareholders who were involved in that, shame on you. Being involved in a small company with no revenue is about sacrifice, dedication and a pursuit of developing your vision, not about cashing out. Stealing money, lieing, and personal threats are no way to end a failed startup, and I hope you feel ashamed of your behavior. You know who you are.