I left a company before because I was being pressured to work at least 12 hours a day plus weekends. (I was averaging about 10 hours a day & worked about 4-6 hours on weekends).
I asked the CEO that he should motivate me. He said that I didn't need to since I was already getting paid a lot of money. I gave my two-weeks notice the next day.
It's possible that you hired the person you want for your company but you were not motivating him enough to work long hours.
I think there is a lot more soul searching to be done here about from the magical ability of the 'right' idea to motivate you. But I do absolutely concede my limited understanding of what went on comes from a couple of blog posts.
I don't know what would motivate anyone to give up their personal lives and most of their free time for a company that wasn't even theirs. Motivation to me would be a large stake in the company.
Anyone not getting this for giving up their lives to a company is a fool.
Interestingly I wonder if the extra hours were really making a difference on the technical side, it sounds like the majority of issues, bar the domain and facebook stuff, were not technical ones.
Developers (anyone really) that are too tired to think are useless to a company. Let people get their rest and their time spent working will be much more productive.
Isn't there a book about this? Myth of the man month or something like that?
Also, hours that somebody appears to be working is definitely the wrong metric for developers.
One of the things you're quickly taught is that you do everything you can to ensure the success of your startup. You need employees with the same priorities and intrinsic motivation as you have, or else you're less likely to succeed.
I agree with the parent. It is very important that everyone get some time off. I would be hesitant to work for anyone that was so overt about not valuing a proper work-life balance. My applications to multiple startups, including YC startups, have been stopped because they say things like "Make this the most important thing in your life."
My job / money will never be the most important thing in my life. Most important in my life is my family and nothing is going to supplant that. If you make like you aren't going to be OK with that, it's an instant deal-breaker and I'd be reluctant to continue talking to anyone that advocates such a bad situation.
We all like computers and we're all excited to build useful things, but give me a break; anyone who cares more about their startup than the general well-being of himself or his family, which well-being includes proper work-life balance, is severely misguided.
I just talked to a friend who told me who distraught he is that he spent almost every waking hour of the last two years working. He told me he felt like 23 and 24 were empty years filled with nothingness. Yes, he made a lot of money working so much, but it wasn't worth it. It never really is.
Not at all. I work relatively long hours now, in my regular job at Mozilla. You know why? Because I love it! If I'm bored, I work, because that's what I do in my spare time too.
The point is intrinsic motivation. You're talking about extrinsic motivation. The latter will never be as good as the former.
> My applications to multiple startups, including YC startups, have been stopped because they say things like "Make this the most important thing in your life."
I think if you're applying for startups, you should apply to one at a later stage. I can't think of many startups who can afford to take on early employees who aren't putting their life-and-soul into it. There's nothing wrong with you not to want to do this, of course.
Otherwise, much as I would like to donate my time to my employer for fun, I just can not afford it.
Big and very important difference. Hell, I'm a founder and if all I spent my time on was my startup I"d go insane, stop having good ideas and so on. It would ruin everything.
I'm not saying that I believe our employee was lazy because he refused to work Sundays. I feel that we hired someone who wasn't sold on the whole startup thing, and treated an early stage startup as if it were a regular job.
I recall a talk from an early Googler, who worked 100 hour weeks for the first five years. Startups need dedication, not because of some kind of culture, or because some exec says so, but because everything is constantly falling apart and it always needs work. You could surely do them differently (perhaps a low-stress startup), but that is another animal altogether.
So the point is you need someone intrinsically motivated to make the startup succeed. Anyone else is the wrong fit.
When a launch is imminent and you are a CO-FOUNDER, and you take a vacation, this is grossly irresponsible. The whole "life happens" comment he uses as a minor defense to it, well....guess what? Work is a part of life too! We juggle work, home, family, friends, hobbies, etc etc all the time, and it's up to us to be responsible on deciding which gets priority at any given time. While one aspect is more important to each of us, there will always be times when something trumps it, regardless of category. And well, a launch of your business compared to going on a honeymoon? Yes, absolutely that trumps it!
A honeymoon can be postponed. I've had many friends that postponed it an entire year! Sorry, I simply cannot find justification for this single act alone.
There is an idea in Protestant Christianity (going back to Jesus or to Martin Luther, depending on whom you ask :-) that you don’t actually earn a ticket to heaven by doing good deeds; rather, heaven is for those who believe in the appropriate Christian dogma, even if their actions in this world are not always perfect.
Anyway, this organization expected certain things of its members, and their theological spin was something like this: if you have the proper belief and get baptized by them, you will be saved from eternal hellfire and you will be filled with a God-given spirit to do good deeds, and among those good deeds was working your ass off for this particular organization. If you weren’t working your ass off, your peers and leaders, running that chain of logic in the opposite direction, would suspect that your baptism hadn’t really taken.
I realize that to someone in that organization, there is a significant difference between the above theology and a simple statement of “the way to get to heaven is to work your ass off for us”. However, to me on the outside, the distinction is... rather too subtle.
Usually, though, he has already got it done.
I've found that hours worked is a poor measure of product devotion :)
Or maybe he realized that working long hours on the same thing with no breaks would actually bring productivity down below what a normal 40 hour week would after just a few weeks. You know, maybe he actually kept up on the science of productivity.
It seems to me that it's come up several times that in your company you chose to follow what you thought was right instead of actually researching it. I hope you can correct this before future ventures.
The key part here is that it's not sustainable long term. It would be silly to optimize for long-term productivity with launch looming and features unimplemented.
(and a quick reminder here that we're not discussing the employee's passion for the startup--which everyone would agree was low--not his "goodness" as a human being or as a developer.)
I consider developing to be a creative kind of job, one where more arse-in-seat time means lower or even negative productivity. Our designer gets off with even less work than my developers. It's about keeping a fresh mind so you can churn out your best stuff. Instead of churning out a lot of mediocre stuff.
Perhaps when we're big enough to have code monkeys there will be time for people wanting to spend such insane hours working :)
As much as I would like to believe this, I don't think it's true. Looking at people who do PhDs, including myself, they work 60-80 hour weeks because you can get more done in that time than working 40 hour weeks. Every startup founder ever has worked extremely long hours. Googlers and Mozillians are in the office long past 5pm.
Certainly your productivity drops on a sliding scale probably after 20 hours of work, but to suggest that 100 hours does not get more done than 40 is pure fiction.
This is roughly what WePay, another YCombinator start-up, worked and called "Khang's hours".
I'm aware that your startup is going much better than mine, but there are no tech startups where people don't work evenings and weekends at the start.
Free was because someone offered to work for free, and we didn't have the resources to pay her. We were going to pay her when we raised money, and we had agreed a rate. In the end, we paid her based on her estimated number of hours worked.
I did not intend it as a slight, but as something I learned in a painful, embarassing way. (The day after Barack Obama wins the presidency, we didn't have a single photo or story from the victory rally!)
In my opinion, intrinsic motivation for a project isn't something that you either have or don't have by nature. It is something that is built and nurtured by a variety of external forces (team members, education, working conditions, etc) until the act of performing a task is rewarding in and of itself.
Expecting early-stage employees to be intrinsically motivated while ignoring environmental factors that may be eroding that motivation is unrealistic.
Personally I find this to be one of the best endorsements of YC that I've read. How people treat you when things don't work out is really, really important.
There are many obvious reasons why this company failed, and I'm surprised that YC gave them any money, but that statement jumped out as a huge red flag of "bad founder". If you think you _need_ 80+ hour weeks, or _need_ to work 6 days a week, never mind 7, you are already failing. Not only are you burning your people out, you're setting a bad example and demonstrating that your business is not viable.
Your people should be working normal hours from day 1. Save the extra hours for emergencies, or big (big as in couple times a year at most) releases or deadlines. If they want to tinker from home or spend a Saturday morning writing an email with ideas, that's when you know you've engaged them, but buying into the "we run on midnight oil" story of startups is just plain not smart.
Smart dudes who go four-wheeling in the mud only turn on the four-wheel-drive when they get stuck.
1) I had no idea NewsTilt existed. I make my living on the internet. I should have known about it.
2) The name suggests to me that they will put a slant on the news. I like unbiased news, and most other people at least pretend to. Also, 'tilt' is slang for 'fail'. That doesn't come to mind immediately from the name, but the association with the word is there subconsciously.
People brought up 2) a lot, but I don't feel it was as bug a problem as almost anything else I put in the post. Our major competitor was called "true/slant", and it did they little harm (but then they built their brand around that, so it's a little different).
Of course 5 months later, both projects are dead and gone under less than ideal circumstances.
I actually was invited to and attended a planning meeting for True/Slant's Chicago people. They asked me to be there so I could explain how they could use Windy Citizen to promote their stuff. They seemed like good people, but I suspect their content was too earnest to really make a go of it. They had the same problem you did:
Without naked women, it's pretty hard to build eyeballs on the web.
For anyone else building a startup without a concrete plan to get traffic, remember this post. Getting traffic will ALWAYS take more time and money than you think. The "if we build it they will come" mentality is a recipe for failure.
I think though if you have the money, or you can at least break even on the users you are paying for it is going to give you a much better start than just hoping people learn about the site from press/ word of mouth.
"we weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism"
This stands out among the numerous issues the company had. If you aren't passionate about something but still want to do it, make sure it's very easy and won't take up too much of your time. That wasn't the case with NewsTilt.
I'd say that that doomed the company from the start.
Doing a journalism startup just doesn't seem like a good idea if you have no understanding or experience of how doing journalism works.
I see why you would think needing journalism experience is important. Of all the errors we made, I don't find that to be a significant one, hence not really mentioning it in the retrospective. I personally still believe that journalism is too set in its ways to save itself, and that it's white knight will come from outside it.
The problem wasn't that you guys didn't wake up and go to read BBC news in my opinion. The problem was that you guys didn't grow up wanting to be newspaper reporters and then start Newstilt after you went into journalism and learned that dream was endangered by the industry's collapsing business model.
Much of what you cite as an error is the direct result of not having understood journalism out the gate. It sounds like you spent a lot of your early resources trying to understand journalists and the news reader audience - after you built the product. Had you known more about the field when you began, how many of your core problems would have been solved in the design phase?
Unfortunately, it all went downhill 4 years later when backstabbing wenches pull the rug out from beneath us.
Newspapers may, as an institution, not 'save journalism,' but I'd bet my money that whoever does will damn sure have had experience in the field.
I was sad to see you guys fold. I really liked your idea.
2. If I were you, I'd probably try to resolve the problems instead of closing the project. Things like facebook login not working on subdomains should not be show-stoppers, really. Find a workaround, I dunno, proxy login or anything.
3. Early releases are good, but you have to provide minimum viable product.
4. I didn't know a thing about newstilt till today which means you had some marketing problems.
5. Don't listen to the guys counting other people's money :) There's always some risk involved in startups, every investor knows that.
6. Probably you had to do some better research before launch. This way you'd know all about your readers.
7. As a developer I'm not with ya on those "should work at sunday" parts.
My 2 c.
"None of these problems should have been unassailable, which leads us to why NewsLabs failed as a company:
* Nathan and I had major communication problems,
* we weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism,
* making a new product required changes we could not make,
* our motivation to make a successful company got destroyed by all of the above.
Maybe you should figure this shit out before you take someone's hard earned money.
Unless the investors were lied to, I think they're fully responsible for what they do with their "hard earned money". Nobody forced them to hand over their money to anyone else, or prevented them from asking more questions before doing so.
If we could have anticipated our mistakes, we wouldn't have made them.
I'm curious. How long have you known each other before you became cofounders?
Reminds me of that quote, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of it."
Maybe you could say, "Success does not come from motivation, but from overcoming the lack of it."
I have to admit, a small piece of me is dancing a little jig, not at their demise, but because they ran into the same walls and hurdles I ran when I started WindyCitizen two years ago. I can't tell you how cathartic it is to read all this stuff. So much truth here.
Example: Working with journalists is tough because almost all of them overvalue their work to an extreme degree, especially older ones who wrote for print. Longtime print journalists were paid solid salaries to fill space in between ads in their papers. They figured if the paper's circulation was X, that a good portion of X was reading their stuff. In fact, it's quite possible no one was reading their stuff and their value wasn't in producing good journalism so much as it was in being able to write something vaguely coherent reliably and safely to fill up space between ads.
Try explaining THAT to an old hand print journalist. Those are fighting words.
But young journalists today understand this. They know that you're only as good as your audience so they're out building them. Check out my friend Tracy Swartz: http://twitter.com/tracyswartz She covers transit for the Chicago Tribune's commuter paper and is a rock solid reporter. I respect her work very much, but moreso I respect how aggressive she is in building a real following and brand around her work so that no matter where she goes after this job, she's got an audience to take with her. Older journalists don't get that. They were used to thinking the audience just magically appeared when they committed an act of journalism.
Anyhow, reading that stuff was like having a weight lifted off my shoulders. Thanks.
Background: My original idea (fresh out of journalism school) was to do a Huffington Post for Chicago. I was doing it solo and sans funding however. I was able to sign up about 20 writers, and they were the good hungry ones who want to stir stuff up, but as a solo founder I wasn't able to recruit writers, direct them, edit their stuff, post the stories (we went with Drupal and the posting ui is really terrible so our writers would e-mail me their stories), promote the stories to get eyeballs on them, then find advertisers and sell ads to them....etc etc
It just was a no-go. So after 8 months of that, I replaced our front page with a Digg knock-off and invited our readers and bloggers to start sharing and voting for their favorite local stories. Traffic slowly picked up to where we were hitting 100k uniques/month, I found someone to work on ad sales, and we eventually reached a shaky ramen profitability as a local Digg-clone with often-spotty tech.
Through this all though, a handful of our writers kept blogging and over the last year we have a few who've managed to build small but regular audiences for their stuff.
Two years later, we're starting to recruit writers and bloggers again and its fun to watch.
It took 24 months longer than I expected and there's still lots to happen, but Windy Citizen is definitely a worthwhile read for a certain segment of Chicago due to the ingenuity of our writers and community members.
Anywho, I'm sorry to hear NewsTilt didn't work out but thank you for your honesty and candor in sharing this. Cheers.
Edit: Fixed site name.
I know nothing about the history, but what about a little patience?
The entire story, though, can really be distilled into one idea: expectation settings.
You always want to under-promise and over-deliver, but it sounds like, in multiple domains, the Newstilt team did just the opposite. They promised a lot to their writers, to their investors, to each other. This happened in both obvious and subtle ways.
What's the problem with the wrong expectation settings?
Where to begin... First of all, it is human nature to raise expectations. You're afraid investors won't invest, developers won't work for you, journalists won't contribute to your site, your co-founder won't carry on: so you raise expectations.
The critical dynamic that screws everything up, though, IMHO, is that inflated expectations attract the wrong types of people. That's the killer.
Paul provided many examples of this. Over-promising to journalists attracted the wrong types of journalists; over-promising to users attracted the wrong types of users; over-promising to potential employees attracted the wrong hire.
If there's one lesson to takeaway from Paul's story it's: under-promise and over-deliver.
Start simply. Don't worry about being too simple. Just be honest, so you attract the right people at the right time.
This was one of the lessons-learned that resonated with me. My husband and I lacked passion for the first startup we co-founded back in the late 1990s and although we were profitable and did sell the business, I know that had we cared deeply about it we would have been 100x more successful. When you care deeply about something you do all the 'little' things that make ALL the difference.
More generally, I would like to thank Paul for his post. In fact, it may just be mandatory reading for anyone starting or planning to start a business. Even if you don't agree with Paul's assessment of NewsTilt's demise, it makes for a great case study, precisely because it inspires us to think about what went wrong, what should have been done, etc. In fact the combination of the post and this thread is precisely the kind of discussion I find so instructive.
I mean, look at how low an opinion brandnewlow (haha) has of veteran journalists. "Working with journalists is tough because almost all of them overvalue their work to an extreme degree". Oh, but I'm sure "digg knockoff + Chicago" is an earth-shattering technology well worth its price in Flooz.
As soon as you realize doing a content play based on writing is very similar to any other creative industry like movies, TV, or music, the sooner you'll respect the people who write for a living. They're not just replaceable crotchety cogs that make your content engine move. They're your sole source of revenue (if you do make an money at all).
My point wasn't that writers don't have value, but that veteran journalists have an understanding of their value that doesn't sync up with how their output is valued in the context of today's media world.
I have an extremely high opinion of veteran journalists. I went into debt so I could attend graduate journalism school and learn at their feet for a year.
However, my great respect for their skills as researchers and reporters does not change my belief that they have an overinflated idea of the value of the actual product they were putting out with those skills. Great content has limited value unless you have the ability to distribute it to a lot of people. Great veteran journalists can make wonderful stuff but lack the ability to put it in front of a lot of people.
Sincerely, A fellow writer. Glad to see more of us on HN.
That's bad advice IMHO. There is far more value to building than buying - the amount you learn, and the extra optimization you can put in there.
If you have the luxury of being able to build it yourself, do.
I agree though, in your circumstance it was probably the wrong approach.
Kudos for writing all of this down, Paul. Next time, stick to your guns and do the simplest thing that works!
Giving up ad revenue for a site that offers no additional value beyond hosting your content is madness.
If we had solved these problems, 20% would have been a very reasonable cut I believe.
The problem is that you were unprepared and unable to deliver those eyeballs, which is probably the main reason the site failed.
Thank you for writing this article.
Why would you have to build there tools instead of using ones already built?
It was a tonne of work. Sourcing and promoting the content, publishing and layout (we were using WordPress, which was way jankier back then), and yes, generating traffic. It was so much work I didn't have time to enjoy any of the content, and it became unfun.
Heck, you should've just asked me. I could've saved you the hassle ;-)