Startup Diary 1: Rabbit Holes, Rockets and Rock Bands

First posted 30th October 2013

This is a first blog post about my startup, sharing some of the thinking that's going into it and mixing a lot of metaphors together in the process. This is some of the lessons learnt in the preamble to actually putting together what, for now, I'm calling mine Moodotron. Let's set the scene.

Like it's 1999

I was there at the time before the first bubble burst. I was in San Francisco, New York and London witnessing, from a desecrate distance, the dot com boom. History will tell many stories about it and my often internal view is blurry.[[MORE]] I remember the silly work hours, consultants bamboozling twenty somethings with business speak, individuals taking on overblown titles and more than few dumb business ideas. Money was free, that's what the company I worked for 'Scient' (set up, apparently, to piss off the guys who set up Sapient) preached. They took the 'fake' venture capital money and made it into 'real' business, or at least they did until they folded the company. For my part I was an Information Architect. It was the first time I brandished that title and I was very wet behind the ears. I worked on .com and on non .com projects. For one bloated insurance company we made fake pink-slips and set them the task of coming up with the start up missile that would take down the mothership. Somewhere in the haze pet insurance may have been invented, I can't truly remember. It was an attempt to inject youthful vigure in a large old bloat dysfunctional company that sat sprawled breaking the grid in Manhattan. I do remember the huge amount of politics, people quitting and realising my corporate credit card had no limit (You'd like to buy the island? That'll do nicely). At one point I found myself in that insurance companies building on my way to a meeting with some management type or other that resided in one of the offices on the outer edges of the vast floors. The floors themselves where broken up by occasional pillars and cubicles. Halfway from the lifts across this expanse I stopped and and slowly turned and 360 degrees looking at the cubicles stretching out along the length of the building until they merged into a grey haze. It was like something out of a Terry Gilliam Movie. I swore never ever to work in a cubical.

On the other extreme where the start up rock stars. It was a world where managers and technical developers ruled and designers (the ones who know photoshop or illustrator). It was about about hacking together solutions, of late night coding sessions and not working in cubicles. Being in a Startup was like being a rock band. You had to be young, full of epic ideas backed up by overdriven enthusiasm and be prepared to pull an all night season and get into work after partying. For a start-up getting venture capital was the equivalent of getting signed.

Now add into this mix Information Architects. We where new creatures, oddities who talked about usability (this was pre UX being a well known thing). We where often ignored by developers and overruled by creative directors, even if we had done a few weeks of research and countless sessions with stakeholders and real world people. The inmates where running the asylum and they where having a great time. Until..

To cut a long story short I didn't make full use of my position at the time. I didn't buy an island on my credit card although I had many free meals in expensive restaurants, stayed rent free in New York and got to fly Upper Class on Virgin. My work made but a small dent in the .com gold rush and I was there for billable hours. I did learn many things, such as enthusiasm and youth can get a company a long way before it realised it had no chance of achieving escape velocity and was due to crash and burn in a mushroom cloud of broken dreams, bitterness and Hermen Miller Aeron Chairs. I learnt that by watching from the sidelines and did managed to jump off the good ship Scient before it started ejecting a large percentage of it's crew mates.

Very very few companies ever made it into orbit. Some where bought for silly money by larger companies who then managed to destroy what they had bought. So what was learnt from all this? Well..

The Next Generation

It's now a teenagers lifetime later. I am not older, wiser and Information Architecture has been subsumed into the trendy and misunderstood field of User Experience. I would be running a department in an advertising company if it wasn't for my time running a department in an advertising company. I now steer a course between youthful new enthusiastic designer type folks and the older generation comfortable in the upper ranks of their companies. There is definitely a divide between the two. This divide become more apparent when I signed up for a Google Startup Weekend in July Last year.

For those who haven't heard of this event it is a intense weekend where 'business' people pitch their ideas and attempt to have it built over the weekend. It ties into the idea of hack weekends and lean startup together; build it quickly and get it out there. I have worked on hundreds of digital services and believe I know how key UX is to any digital service/product (aka .com). So why is it that User Experience, site maps etc were an alien concept? Most of the people there where young (rock band age) and many where either developers or wannabe millionaires. The where a few oldies wanting to make a quick buck and there where a few designers. I was the only real UX person there for what I could see. I found this quite amazing.

so that weekend I pitched Moodotron to the room and it won enough votes to get to the 'form a team' stage, at which point I realised you can't build a good startup in two days and pulled it out of contention. I then joined another team that was proving to be unpopular but had a really good idea and helped them come second. Yes it was a competition and we built large teams of developers who took the whole 'build it' thing seriously. We had a good powerpoint, some research and a mockup. So much for Lean Startup.

What has changed since 1999 is it's quicker and cheaper to put together terrible startups. A company can fail quicker and easier than ever before for less money. What hasn't changed is that business people continued to have bad ideas and developers continued to hack together sites that real human beings don't want to use. It's no wonder that lean start-up is about failing quickly as it's the one thing 99.9% of the companies are guaranteed to do, simply because they constantly put their foot down the same 'Rabbit Holes', or run of the edge of the cliff in their enthusiasm, which ever metaphor you prefer.

Avoiding Rabbit Holes

Rabbit Holes are things that, without a degree of experience, people will constantly put their foot down and trip up on. They are the mistakes that are made time and time again, some of which get enshrined into startup folk lore as what a company is supposed to do! There are enough of these to mean that for an enthusiastic company to avoid them requires them to be very lucky. The mantra of failing quicker does not tell people where the Rabbit Holes are but sets people up to simply prompts them to get back up to have another go and try running in a different direction. It's like buying more lottery tickets rather than working out the lottery is rigged. So what are these rabbit holes and why do I hate lean startup so much? Here's a few of these bunny created terrors.

Build then get feedback

This is an old one. A lack of good research up front and lack of experience and domain knowledge leads to the hope that you can build anything and that feedback will make it better. If you build a ship with holes in the bottom then users will give you the feedback that it doesn't float, but not why it won't. A seasoned shipwright will point out that holes in boat aren't a good idea. In Lean Startup a leaky boat leads to a pivot that means you end up with something that looks like a boat but is now a bench, sculpture or something. I might be stretching this metaphor too far but the concept is the wrong starting point won't get you to where you want no matter how much feedback you get.

Innovation is the key

Coming up with ideas is easy. Coming up with new ideas is next to impossible so my view is don't bother, instead recombine existing ones in a way people haven't. If you're not aware that came before then often the drive for innovation leads to going to the places that successful startups don't. Now keep in mind most startups fail so the chances of a modern day innovation being a later day failure is very high. Sure sometimes it's about timing, sometimes it's also about how something was done as well, but in both of these cases it's best to dig for those failures and learn from them. In short innovation and creativity are rabbit holes.

Social social social

Earlier I mentioned the Google Startup weekend. During this there was another film recommendation tool that was based upon going through your social history and then guessing what films you might want to see. This essentially attempting to do collaborative filtering but using information inferred from social updates in order to determine what you might like. But it was social! So it must be good. Nope, it sucked. It was no better than random at coming up with stuff that you might want to watch. The need to hook into social media is very strong. Yet by tying into Facebook you may be hooking into a sinking ship. Also the information you pull in about a person via their social network is often very misleading and also really creepy. It's effectively stalking your users. Social networks will come and go over the years. Remember Six Degrees? I do.

Trend following

There is a view that once a trend is established it's no longer worth following. Flat design has followed Web 2.0. There is always a trend out there and most sites end up looking like that or doing what that site does. Gamification? The Internet of Things? Microblogging? UX Design? Insert your favourite thing here. Follow these blindly and it's another rabbit hole. When something like this comes up it's worth finding out what lies at it's heart and what previous knowledge does it build up. Those new to UX Design may think it's about getting the interface right instead of

Worry about the money later

Many do get away with this. They build sites that have no obvious way of bringing in money then sell it for silly amounts. To this day I still don't really get Foursquare. And how does Instagram make money. And then there's that Facebook. Meanwhile there are small e-commerce sites that make money from day one and .coms that have run for years based off affiliate ticket sales. If you can make money from day one then, in my view, that is a sign you have something good going on.

Do I have a rabbit hole map?

This metaphor has gone too far. No I don't have a map but I know they're there and there are many of them. I am in a position to have seen many different companies stumble over the same ones and many projects fail. I am lucky enough to have learnt from the mistakes of others and feel that it's not time to make my own. For all that I've trashed Lean Start up I do agree that Startups will always make mistakes and it's about making them quickly and style. There is a good concept behind that trend, it's just many appear to miss it. Maybe that idea has it's own built in rabbit holes.


So here's my hypothesis. There is good advice out there by people who are building successful startups and there is also a barrage of bad advice by those wanting a successful startup or who have failed several times but are insistent on using the same formula to fail quicker. The rejection of tried and tested knowledge in the search for the that will disrupt and hack the world results in a few successes out of the vast majority of failures. Instead the middle path would be mix and match and find out the things that work now and worked then and see where the overlap is. Tried and tested may not be as sexy as innovative and edgy but it is more guaranteed to work.


As of Jan 2015 I am now focusing on my role at Transport for London so, for now, the Startup is very much in the background.

See Also:

Startup Diary 2: First Sketches and Big Admin

Previous UX Stew Posts