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Killing Your Startup on a Thursday Night (techcrunch.com)
303 points by sethbannon on Oct 28, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

Fascinating how many people make very strong judgements about his life, story, product and decision with a very shallow level of information.

It's a bit sad to see. Especially because i believe that many people here know (or should know) how complex these topics are.

In my opinion great article. Thanks for sharing that honestly.

I can only give this comment one upvote, I wish I could give it more. When you've got no outside funding and you're keeping your idea alive though sheer will power then eventually it grinds you down. Most startups fail, my guess is that this guy finally came to the conclusion that there were a number of problems which he no longer had the energy or cash to solve, I'm sure he gained a lot of insight from the process even if he can't quite bring that to bear just yet.

I wish him luck and wholeheartedly thank him for making that post.

The level of honesty in the post is touching. Figuring out the right time to quit is as important as starting up. However, lack of outside funding especially after he looked for it might also be a sign that either the idea or the was he handled the business so far is not viable. 1000 tickets over that much time does not seem impressive. Again, inspiring post.

I'd say the low ticket sales coupled with scalability problems was probably the thing that brought about the end - possibly a surmountable problem, but one that takes a lot more time and capital.

(ie, each showing requires staff at the very least to collect tickets - he makes reference to smoking and drinking with the bar staff).

That's the sort of problem that, if you come across it, and you're already low on energy + resources, is enough to finish it off.

They aren't really judgements on his life, and we aren't really interested in the story because of him. Lots of people here are interested in how startups succeed and they wonder what lessons they can take from it. I think you're right that people are looking at it in a bit of a simplistic way though.

Two problems I see. The first is:

> I still had a job, which made everything near impossible, that I couldn’t afford to quit. I worked during the day as a report writer, snuck in emails and business calls for Altsie over my lunch, and worked late into the night to take care of hundreds of necessary details to keep the project going.

combined with

> Despite my downward physical spiral, I managed to marry the love of my life

I appreciate that people have lives too but you just can't do two jobs and have a personal life. Sorry. Something has to give. I've read many tales of where having just the startup has put a strain on personal relationships.

I wonder what the situation was with the cofounders. How many were there? Were they full-time? If so, that could be a problem (in that they might end up feeling that they've gone "all in" when you haven't).

> Two years building and eight months running Altsie took its toll.

Two years to launch? i wonder how much quicker it would've been to launch if it had full-time resources. For something that isn't hugely technically sophisticated (correct me if I'm wrong but this doesn't sound like that kind of startup) that is (IMHO) too long. People talk about MVPs for a reason. You need to prove your idea and get feedback ASAP.

Whatever the case, eight months doesn't seem long enough to prove anything one way or the other.

I don't mean to be harsh so I apologize if it comes across that way. Lucas, good luck to you. I would suggest that when you wish to try your next venture (assuming you do), you do so when you can dedicate it to yourself full-time.

> I appreciate that people have lives too but you just can't do two jobs and have a personal life.

Sure you can. You just have to work at it, and get organized. For the last 2 and a half years, I've worked a 9-5 contracting gig, been CTO at a startup with major blue-chip clients, gotten married, learned to drive, released some open-source software, prototyped some software for another startup, and completed the first third of an MSc at a well-known university. Also I finally got my shit together, and lost a lot of weight.

And I often feel like I waste a lot of my time.

Is it easy? It's not that hard (or I wouldn't be doing it). You just need to be organized... I gave up drinking alcohol, which meant I don't lose precious hours to hangovers. My wife is also pretty busy, but we carve out two evenings a week and a whole day of weekend to just spend with each other (and often with friends), and that works well. I think the trick is to be _really strict_ about when you're working and when you're not working. Email by default only flashes up on my phone when it has the word 'urgent' added to the subject.

The amount people big-talk here about burning their bridges, full commitment, etc etc, I get the idea that everyone else is working their fingers to the bone, and I just don't feel that busy. I'm pretty tired by Friday night, but a lie-in until 8am on Saturday sorts me out. I don't think it'll work when I have kids, and I wouldn't want to do it forever, but it's certainly doable.

> You just need to be organized

Putting just inside of a sentence doesn't suddenly make it easier. "It's easy, you just have to learn linear algebra". "It's easy, you just have to sleep less."

People's ability to organize seems to be part learned and part innate. You should count yourself blessed that the organization is just that easy for you :)

I am fairly sure the discussion centered around "is it possible", rather than "is it easy". No, it's not easy. I am surprised you came away thinking it might be.

Maybe because you said "It's not that hard (or I wouldn't be doing it)."

The ability of people to be organized (whether it is learned or innate) is widely varying, so it is reasonable to assume that the step "just be organized" is going to have a wide range of difficulties depending on the person.

I am glad it is possible for you, and truly impressed. But for some people it would be a matter or organizing 28 hours into a 24 hour day, and still not sleeping. When I did my tiny startup years ago it was every waking second of every day. Granted mine failed absolutely, not with a bang but a whimper, so I am not an ideal example.

I have to respectively disagree with you; a business can grow with part-time investment, it just won't be growing as quick as if it were a full-time position.

Sure, it might not have worked out this time, as many startups don't, but I'm sure he learned a lot and maybe he'll give it another go sometime.

Some business certainly can, but when you HAVE to go door to door to make the business work, when it has such a physical "meatspace" presence you need to go full time.

This is an honest take on things, and whilst it would be great to have the ability to dedicate ourselves to something full-time, it isn't always possible.

I'm currently in the process of running a startup, whilst maintaining a family and a full-time job. Is it ideal? Certainly not, but at this stage of my life it just isn't an option to quit my regular job. This doesn't represent a lack of dedication to what I am trying to achieve it simply diminishes the time that I have to work on it. That is fine with me though (and I suspect it was with the OP as he decided to take the journey in the first place). I'd rather try when my circumstances limit things, than not try at all.

It also helps to have a co-founder who is willing to stick by you through thick or thin. I thought I had this, but when the shit hit the fan, the guy bailed on me. Then refused to pay me. He thinks he's a moral person, but at the end of the day he doesn't pay and doesn't have any loyalty.

Without a cofounder you can rely on, I can't see how you can make it work. I was lucky in that I didn't get too far in (well, I got in quite far) before I realised the guy's ethics were terrible. It was an interesting learning experience though, and I'm greatful for the opportunity. It's only a pity it cost my family time and money, but we'll rebuild.

I agree that having a job and doing a startup is not giving either of those things a fair chance at succeeding. But also if I had to add one thing, I'd say that most entrepreneurs simply give up too fast. This might have represented a true test against how badly you actually want to have your own business (non lifestyle business that is) and maybe your decision is the truest manifestation of your real desires, but I think that if you know that what you really want is to change the world with a "let's blow this out of the water" type of business, then less than 3 years is simply too soon to give up in my opinion.

It is a tough one, I doubt a business like this could raise without some significant traction and I doubt it could get this without operating for some time. The answer I guess is to build up some savings and accept you will have to get by on not much for a year full time to give it a chance.

I don't think all startups/ online projects require full time effort to ever see a return. I think this one likely does though, lots of moving parts and you have to convince distributors.

I agree. I'm fortunate in that my wife understands that I'm sacrificing our personal life for a bigger future. I had a job and bootstrapped our company during this time, but had to work 12 hour days for 16 months. Winning often requires sacrifice. Not always, but often.

Maybe it's just me, but wouldn't you email your co-founders and have that discussion before you start closing down accounts and making the move completely permanent?

Perhaps one of them has an idea to cut costs, or would like to open source the code, or can line up a buyer for the assets, or ... something.

Telling your stakeholders/investors/cofounders after you've pulled the trigger seems like the exact backwards way to do it.

I don't think he necessarily did it in the order that the article listed. He said "Harder than that" rather than "after that".

Maybe co-founders had moved on earlier and he was giving his last shot alone?

I don't get why this one founder would be closing everything down on his own either, but then I didn't find any mention of co-founders or even co-workers in the story. He only mentioned that he didn't know how to ask for help. What kind of 'co-founders' were these co-founders?

Probably arbitrary "I can't do it alone" co-founders. I don't know anything about the startup listed in the post but I see quite a few people on reddit asking for co-founders as if someone that doesn't really care about your startup but hangs around is better than focusing on it alone.

My first thought too.

To me it sounded like the guy had a good idea, it was slow growing but it was also not his main focus. He had paying customers, distributors, and producers using his service, it had roots. It may not have been worthwhile in his eyes to keep up, but to me it seemed like he had a good idea, good people behind it, he just needed to keep going a little while longer. Did he give up too early right when things seemed to be at the end? I guess we'll never know. Startups are hard. If it was easy everyone would do it. Not to downplay this guys dedication, it seemed he had a lot, but 3 years of working full time and growing a startup, that seems like it would take a toll on anyone. I guess everyone can't just take a leap and quit their job, but something has to give I feel. When you're starting a company it absolutely needs at least one persons complete focus.

I wonder if he tried to change how he operated before he shut up. It sounds like something that would be very easy to franchise. He sources the distributors and finds a passionate person in each city (lots of people love indie films; so this should be easy) to run the actual events. He can then take a percentage of their profits without having a massive workload he can't handle.

"He can then take a percentage of their profits"…

I think that is likely to be the problem. I think this is a great idea too, _BUT_ I've seen a few attempts to start up "indie movies in bars" type things here (in Sydney .au), and you seem to either get reasonable attendance numbers at free (or "donation requested") nights, or almost nobody showing up to show charging admission (even if it's as low as $5).

Between the film distributor, the venue, and the organiser - there's very little profit to be made anyway. Adding another person wanting a cut into the chain leaves even less money for each person's share, and I'm not sure a website (no matter how slick or well designed) adds enough value for the distributor/venue/organiser to want to give up some of their meager earnings.

I think this is much more a hyper-local marketing/advertising problem than anything a national-scale website can offer. The bottleneck is the venues, and the venues are only going to be interested on nights they're not already busy (or busy enough), which means you're only going to get Monday or Tuesday nights (or possibly Sundays). From my experience - that means you mostly only get "locals" showing up - it seems nobody wants to drive halfway across town on a Monday night to go to a bar and see a movie - back when one of my local bars was doing this (Jay Katz and Miss Death doing Monday nights at The Annandale), I'd guess more people turned up on foot or by bicycle than in cars. When your target customer is defined by "lives within 15 minutes walk of the venue", multi-city focused websites seem a lot less useful - I'd be concentrating my efforts on social media and posters/flyers placed appropriately around the venue...

(But maybe I'm wrong, I'd love it if somebody found a great angle, and make a huge success out of this idea… Once you reached critical mass with it, it'd be wonderful to expect to be able to hit the "cool indie movies in bars" website and find something interesting and fun to do on a Monday night in Melbourne or Portland or Vancouver or Berlin…)

His model reminded me more of the pub trivia scene rather than an alternative to brick and mortar cinemas. If his percentages were low enough then he could make this a decent business by having educated locals spend a few days a month promoting and running this in dozens of cities.

That all assumes his fixed costs are low enough that he could let the business run like this while he continues he day job. This might not be the case though.

I guess my question is - what are those "educated locals" getting in return for his cut?

Uh, I meant to type "motivated locals". Autocorrect strikes again.

There are three parts to his business: the brand, his connections with indy film publishers, and the event organisation. From the sounds of it the later is what is taking most of his time and energy, but that's also the part that is has nothing to do with what makes his business unique. There are thousands of people who can organise an event. Many probably do it better than him.

The value of his business is in the brand and connections. His business doesn't even support one person's wage with three cities so a single location franchisee would have to be a hobbyist. Such a person has no time to be organizing the rights for screenings, designing and printing flyers or maintaining a website. For the franchisee, the chance to make a bit of pocket money doing something they're passionate about as a socializing film-lover, and to have Lucas handle the rest of the organization.

I think it cuts down the potential audience quite a bit. I already am not very interested in going to a bar, and watching a movie in one sounds even less fun. Most of the people I know who refuse to go to the movies cite cleanliness, noisyness, rude people, etc. as the reasons. In my mind, going to a movie at a bar ramps up all the negative aspects of the experience.

I'm expecting that many people will disagree with me on this, but I thought my view was worth putting out there.

I'm struck by two things in this story, the expectations Lucas started with, and the lessons learned (or not).

Lucas says "I put three years of my life into building and running Altsie,..." ... "As we approached launch last May" and "Two years building and eight months running "

What are the expectations on a business where you are looking for people to integrate a new thing (going to a bar to catch an indie movie) into their lifestyle? A week? A month? a year? five years? If you look at the restaurant business most seem to require a 3 year 'boot' cycle, the first year nobody knows about them but perhaps the local food critic trys them. The second year they have some foot traffic and perhaps they get written up in a more widely distributed guide, then the third year they have people coming who have read about them in the guide or found them on their phone's 'maps' product and they get to see how successful they are going to be. I can't imagine that any idea which requires people to change their behaviors in the real world could really be tested in less than a year.

The other thing that was sad to read was this bit, "I’d signed up to fight on the front lines. I still had a job, which made everything near impossible, that I couldn’t afford to quit. I worked during the day as a report writer, snuck in emails and business calls for Altsie over my lunch, and worked late into the night to take care of hundreds of necessary details to keep the project going."

There is a reason YC and others ask you to quit your job if you're doing a startup. There isn't a lot of excess time. If you have a spouse or partner who can bring in enough income to pay the bills and maybe health care that is one thing, but being both the 'stable income source' and the primary mover of the new venture? Not a good idea as Lucas discovered.

Now the most important thing to do is to capture all of the things you learned into something you can use in the future. What worked? What didn't work? How did you spend your time, could you have out sourced any of that? What were your costs and how did you evaluate the business? What variables did you guess at? Did you guess high or low? People who have been through the ringer are twice as valuable as people who haven't done it yet because they have a better idea of what they need to know to make forward progress.

I hope that Lucas' next venture is a lot less stressful on his health/psyche and much more satisfying overall.

He has my full respect, not just for what he tried to do but also for writing this post. One can only wonder how many unwritten stories like this there are out there - most people who give up don't blog about it. People would probably be better served by getting a full picture of the startup scene, including stories of some of the failures besides the successes, but there's a natural survivorship bias which happens instead.

> Altsie was a new, live theater market for the growing pool of independent films that don’t make it to the big box theaters. We basically turned bars into movie houses, with all the infrastructure (business profiles, showtime dashboards, and ticketing) housed on the web

I have no idea how good a business idea that is (I guess not such a great one), but it sounds like a great idea and I wish something like it could be successful. In my moderately sized UK city it's impossible or very difficult to see a large proportion of new releases on a big screen.

Sadly, a lot (most?) of great ideas won't ever be viable businesses. I'd very much like to see this idea happen also, but I also suspect there are some very firm reasons why the indie film scene is only truly active in a few cities around the world.

I like reading these articles, especially when they're not pure software startups. It's incredibly hard to make the decision to cut your losses and fold. But you can always try again. (In fact, accepted startup wisdom says you should try, and try, again).

Some of the things I can relate to:

Definitely identify with gaining weight. It's brutal how quickly you can fall out of shape.

After playing basketball 6 times a week since college I barely get out once every three months. I'm 30 now and feel 40.

Aside from the up and down roller coaster ride, the hardest part for me has been balancing a relationship that began at roughly the same time that my co-founder and I went into business together. I have no idea how you could possibly balance anything else (like a real job) outside of a startup and a new relationship for extended period of time.

There are times my relationship has been a distraction to our business. But well worth the juggling act :)

This was the most refreshing post I've read in a long time.

Agreed. There is much glamour and flash on display on this site that people seem to forget that failure is what teaches you things, not success.

Pretend for a moment it's July 1, 2009, you're Lucas, and you must answer the following 3 questions correctly, else you might spend the next 3 years chasing your vision for $0:

1. What pain does my idea solve? 2. Does it solve it for a large number of people? 3. Just how painful is it for not being solved?

Do you know plenty of people who are in pain because they can't find a venue to watch an indie flick? Does not being able to find an indie flick at an appropriate venue eat at their thoughts 24/7? Are they going to go nuts finding a solution if you don't provide one? How much money would solving this problem be worth to them?

Admittedly I know diddly about Altsie, and I'm not one for indie flicks, but let's compare Altsie to Airbnb. Airbnb solves a basic human need: that of housing. How painful is it when you don't have a house? Immensely. How much money are you willing to pay for a roof over your head? Thousands per year. How many people are searching for your solution. A shitload. Now replace housing with "Indie Flick", and objectively recalculate.

After doing so, you might think three years is a long, loooong time investment, hugely out of proportion to the level of pain Altsie solves, not to mention the price of solving that pain.

> Do you know plenty of people who are in pain because they can't find a venue to watch an indie flick?

Yes, watching an indie flick in any venue is a problem. Distribution of indie flicks in general is a problem. Shows are usually organized by people from the production crew traveling from college campus to college campus by van. Many well-made movies are only shown in a couple of theaters because coordinating a proper release is beyond the capabilities of a small producer.

Considering you can make a movie with great production value for a million dollars nowadays, the distribution problem is only going to get more severe.

The indie producers are probably the party in the most acute pain here.

A movie is a couple hours entertainment to the viewers but a livelihood to the makers...

Does that really answer the question you quoted? Your reply is mainly about producer pain.

Maybe my city's unusual, but I don't know many viewers who are clamoring for more options to seen indie film. We've been losing small theaters left and right. My dad's a good example; he used to go to a bunch of indie movies, but has mainly shifted his viewing online.

So there's plight. Is Altsie supposed to fix a perceived inbalance between Hollywood and low budget film makers then?

This just doesn't sound like a painful enough problem for consumers, and it doesn't sound like one many people share.

This isnt really a great comparison. I dont disagree that this wasnt solving a big problem, but neither was AirBnB. Housing is important, but finding "housing" isnt what they do. They arent finding people apartments to keep them out of the cold, they are finding them alternatives to hotels for when they travel. AirBnB essentially took the vacation home market and opened it up to everybody with a spare bedroom. This is huge, but that is them creating a new market/vastly expanding another. They solved a "problem" people didnt know they had, they didnt provide people with food and shelter.

Have another comparison. I have severe, chronic back pain every single day of my life. I've had a bulging disc in my lower back, L5, for damn near a decade and on many days, it's just about all I can think of. I plan my days around my back pain. I make life choices around my back pain. I want it to go away, very very badly.

So, on a scale of 1-10 in terms of "just how painful is it", where 10/10 = you just severed your femur, I'd rate my back pain a 6/10. I'd rate my inability to find a local venue for an indie flick a 1/10. In other words, my inability to see indie flicks at cool bars around town doesn't even register with my psyche.

It turns out that lots of people have back pain. If I had to guess, probably more people have back pain than want to find a local venue to see indie flicks. I'd rate the back pain market size a 7/10. Not sure on the market size for finding local venues for indie flicks.

Airbnb does more than vacation rentals.

I think you're thinking about the problem from the wrong angle. There's three parties involved here - the filmgoer, the film maker, and the venue owner.

If you ask yourself "are there indie film makers absolutely desperate to find places willing to show their films", and "are there bar owners absolutely desperate to find ways of increasing their trade on a quiet Tuesday night", then I'm guessing the answer is "Absolutely".

And I'm also guessing that if somebody can do both services effectively enough, the two parties would happily pay a fair amount for that service.

I'm currently reading David Byrne's "How Music Works" and he's quite clearly talking about the need/opportunity for startups to plug the distribution gap for low volume indie musicians, and I don't see that the indie movie world is a great deal different to that.

> Elon Musk said that running a startup was like eating glass and staring into the abyss. When I first heard those words they sounded brave and romantic.

I honestly don't think anyone understands what it really feels like to build a company until you do it. Before I started running my first startup, I thought that the hardship and mental anguish other people describe was somewhat like what I already experienced during hard times at other companies. It wasn't. You pour your heart and soul into a startup and push to the side your physical health, hobbies, family and basically everything else. Then after a year or more of doing everything possible to try and succeed, you potentially end up with nothing. Like Lucas says, you don't really end up with nothing, but it sure as hell feels like it at the time.

Thanks for writing this up, this was a great article and exactly the kind of thing that attracts me to hacker news (if not why I sit and F5 it all day).

This was a great story and I have a lot of respect for Lucas after reading it, but there are a few things that I want to notice.

First, Altsie is a pretty awesome idea! I really like the idea of going to a bar to watch an indie movie, I'm sure producers would love to get their film shown, and bars want extra customers coming in. This is something that definitely could have worked.

Second, the technology behind this product is trivial, a 2 year build is a huge warning sign. I cannot find on the site or in this description anything that should be hard to put together, and the fact that Lucas spent a few years building this in his spare time instead of hiring someone to do it in a (few) week(s) shows a dangerous prioritization of money over time.

Third, it takes a strong presence of mind (or maybe just good communication with your partner) to realize that what you're doing isn't making you happy. Kudos on letting it go.

Any reason this is entirely in italics?

UPDATE: Must have been a bug. It has now been fixed.

It makes it feel more personal, giving the impression that it is handwritten.

I think they just forgot to close the italics after the editor's note.

I think it was a bug - it's no longer in italics now.

that almost felt real... some interesting perspective, no doubt.

Here's a quarter... :)

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