Startup Lessons - Having industry momentum at your back

Two years ago, I partnered with an awesome CTO, Alex Lines, to start a company called Path 101.  We didn’t get enough traction on the product and business to continue it fulltime, so we’re now working on it as a nights and weekends project as we take on other jobs.  This is the 2nd of a series about what I learned starting up a company. First one is here.

A few months ago, I wrote about the three types of deals VCs do.  One thing I realized was that aside from just betting blindly on an experienced entrepreneur or funding a later stage project, was that when VCs put money into something that's innovative, they tend to do it in an innovative sector.  So, it's not just about the idea, but they want that idea to live in an ecosystem that is in flux or generating new and interesting approaches.  For example, BazaarVoice (a First Round portfolio company) helps power social commerce with a variety of applications that help amplify customer voices to both sellers and to other customers.

No matter what they started with, social shopping was definitely an interesting area when the company started in 2005 and got funded in 2006.  It was clear that reviews and social media were helping sell product, so a bet on a suite of tools that helped companies create conversations around commerce would seem to have the wind at its back.

That's exactly what we didn't have at Path 101 in the jobs space.  In fact, what was fascinating to me, and unexpected, was how negative VCs were on the jobs area--especially for something so monetizable.  There there had been very little innovation in the way that companies hire and the way people find their jobs online in the last 15 years--except for LinkedIn--and investors largely saw that industry as a hopeless dinosaur.  Sure, there were business model innovations, like TheLadders and Indeed, but these were mostly about subtle changes in the way these companies made money.  It was still job ads and resumes at the end of the day.  The average VC didn't quite believe there was a disruptive job play to be had, so the idea of thinking of us as that play was a stretch. 

I can't exactly blame investors either.  Often times, investors bet on the "pivot"--the ability for a startup to stop what they're doing and have a strategic shift in the product or business plan.  It probably happens a majority of the time, and so an investor needs reasonable assurance that the team is going to pivot into something good.  If you're in a dynamic industry that is primed for innovation, not only is it easier to see where the next big thing is going to come from, but you get more experimentation from customers.  They're more willing to try new things because they know business is changing, but they're not sure exactly now. 

On top of that, it's easier to get press if you're in an industry with some buzz around it.  If you were to do a new geolocation startup, like Hot Potato, everyone will want to talk to you because there's obviously something happening in this space.  No one was really that excited about talking about new models in the job space.  Heck, the only blog actually covering new models in the space, Cheezhead, stopped publishing over a month ago.  

The other thing was that ideas don't happen in silos.  It helps to surround yourself with a vibrant community of entrepreneurs--and in the job space, there were only a handful of people I felt like I could talk with about new models.  Everyone else was basically minting cash on businesses that I couldn't understand how they'd even be able to exist in five years.  That meant that our inflow of new ideas and great feedback was pretty limited.

It's hard, because there wasn't another industry that I really wanted to change so badly.  Careers was my thing.  I'm extremely passionate about helping people figure out what to do with their careers, but ultimately, creating a startup in this space was an uphill battle from the beginning.  I'm not saying this was a fixable problem--just more like a warning to new entrepreneurs.  Take a look at your space.  Wipe your finger on the tables.  If it's too dusty, you may want to wait a little bit before trying to move the furniture around.