Get out of the rabbit hole

We try to correct course instead of starting again by fear of wasting time. But going back to the surface and start digging a new hole might be the fastest way to find the right solution.

There are many different ways to attack a problem. When you are developing a prototype, chances are your first version approaches the problem the wrong way. But you don’t know it yet. You get feedback from your environment and you correct course. You do a v2. You get further along but you still haven’t found Product Market Fit. A few users may like your product but it doesn’t take off.

You need to climb back out of the rabbit hole. Don’t just take a step back. Go all the way back to square one.

That’s hard. It’s very very hard. Because it implies throwing away months if not years of work. But the truth is that this work was not in vain. You’ve learnt things. You gained experience that will help you do your v3 in record time.

Once you allow yourself to start anew with a blank canvas, you will see things that you couldn’t see before. Constraints are gone. Your mind is free to explore new ways of approaching the problem. Keep the same vision, attack the same problem but start digging from another spot.

Once you are on the right path, you’ll notice. All of a sudden, things will become much more easier. There will be much less resistance, much less friction. Things will fall into place naturally.

It takes time and work to find the right path. But once you find it, you will be amazed how fast you’ll get traction and reach your product market fit. It takes time to become an overnight success.

I had to throw away a few implementations before doing Storify. I started working on the problem of surfacing interesting voices lost in the noise back in 2008 in London. Back then I was trying to surface the interesting voices burried in long comment threads. I quickly realized that those threads were moving to new centralized social platforms and I launched Tweetag which was the same principle applied to the Twitter Firehose. I learned that building a destination site is hard and that it would be better to go where the users are. That's how I pivoted to Publitweet to help publishers publish the best content curated from Twitter on their site. I moved to SF and found a cofounder after a few months.

We started getting some traction but it wasn't taking off. It was still too much work to get new users. Our first reaction was to improve the existing product with our users' feedback, including this great post by Robert Scoble about the 7 Needs Of Real Time Curators. We started adding some manual curation features to the product. But that was only making our product incrementally better.

So I threw everything away and started off with a fresh new canvas, a new name and even new technologies (moving away from the classic LAMP PHP MySQL stack to NodeJS). In a few weeks I had a working prototype. I did the very first demo in June 2010 and in July we got selected for Techcrunch Disrupt in September. Things moved very quickly and organically from there. All of a sudden, it was easy to get new users. We were on a much better path.

Throwing away all those previous versions wasn't easy. I probably kept them for far too long. But they each taught me something that has been key in building Storify.

This is not an uncommon story. Frontback had to throw away two years of work on CheckThis.com. Instagram had to throw away a year of work on Brbn. Kevin Systrom even said in an interview: “You have to go through false starts”.

As you build your startup, you are digging a hole. If it doesn’t get easier to get new users, take the time to get back to the surface and dig a brand new hole instead of simply trying to correct course. The right path might not be far. Once you find it, the entire universe will conspire in helping you to succeed and you will feel it.

Hack away!

Xavier Damman

About the author

I'm Xavier Damman. I'm an engineer in computer science and an entrepreneur. I'm passionate about the digital renaissance. I like to think about the future of media (I cofounded Storify), organizations and democracy (I'm now working on Open Collective). In my spare time, I like to hack and talk. You can follow me on Twitter @xdamman.