When I first met Stan, co-founder of tl;dr.io, he pitched me the ‘summary layer’ that he wanted to build on top of the internet, and, frankly, I just didn’t buy it. As a content company, I knew how tough it is to maintain that level of content, a certain level of quality, and get the traction you need. 10 years ago, maybe the internet would’ve been willing to do the leg work to build up the content database needed for this, but today, it’s just out of the question. We live in a world where kids are “too cool for Facebook;” try explaining to them the sounds a modem makes or the amount of information that is out there in sheer volume.
Still, tl;dr continued on, and I watched them from the sidelines, curious to know whether my gut reaction held merit – after a rollercoaster ride that included getting accepted into Seedcamp & getting traction among notable bloggers, tl;dr seemed to have fallen off the planet about six months ago. It was only when I saw one of the founders’ LinkedIn profiles change that I realized something might be wrong, and so I sat down with Stanislas Marion for the dreaded: “Tell me what went wrong” chat.
What was your vision for tldr.io? Where did it come from & what led you to think it was a viable startup?
The vision behind tldr.io was to help people tame the web in the sense that they could be more efficient finding and consuming relevant information. There are basically two angles to attack the information overload, one is to filter the inputs using social signals, aggregators, etc which is being worked on by a ton of startups/companies, and the other is to try to actually reduce the length of the content to keep only what’s most important. We tried the latter. And not only did we want to summarize the content, we also wanted to present it to people at the moment they need it, in context, not only in a dry weekly digest. Basically it was a more efficient form of browsing. We thought a lot of people or companies would be willing to pay for that high quality digestable content.
You were accepted into SeedCamp – what was that like?
Seedcamp Paris was the first time ever we really pitched the company to investors or mentors. We had just launched the first iteration of the product (a clunky bookmarklet at that point). We were terrified. I was going to be the one pitching and that would basically be the first time of my life I would speak in front of a room full of people, and not the most random of people. I clearly wasn’t ready. We scrambled to make the slides during the weekend, juggling between this and a hackathon we had foolishly signed up for.
The training session by Carlos was amazing and really helped us understand what was asked of us during the pitch session. We redid all the slides afterwards and practiced a lot. Then the next morning came my turn and apparently it went OK. A lot of people were intrigued by the idea, although most were very (rightly a posteriori) suspicious of how this could actually become a viable company. When Carlos told me we were in it felt amazing and very encouraging to finally have some external support from people who know what they’re doing. We were welcomed in their amazing London office at Google Campus and met the other teams, very nice and brilliant people all around.
It was extremely energizing.
Seedcamp organizes a lot of very instructive masterclasses and events with top quality speakers covering all fields a startup needs to work on, from marketing and design to financing and recruiting. They don’t insist as much on the engineering part of things as usually the founders they recruit are technical from what I gathered. Basically Seedcamp provides you with a framework on how to build your strategy and company, and offers help at every turn should you want it. But they don’t fall into the holding-your-hand category.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And they’re not your bosses, they’re not here to tell you what to do.
They’re here when you want to ask specific questions or meet specific people. I quite like that modus operandi. They don’t take your independance from you, but still care a lot. It’s a difficult balance to strike and I think they got it right. We parted ways in very good terms, and we would be super happy to work with them again, should the occasion present itself.
What ultimately led to the decision to stop tldr.io? Was it a hardline drawn in the sand months in advance, or a realization that things weren’t going where you wanted them to?
We had a period of very fast weekly growth in the first 3 months of 2013, as we were randomly picked up by some bloggers that drove a bunch of signups. In terms of engagement however, our numbers were stagnating at an unsatisfying level. In late April, it had been two months since the signup numbers themselves had stopped growing, and engagement was still very low. And we obviously didn’t have much more of a business model than “become Twitter-scale and figure it out later”, which doesn’t really cut it, especially in Europe.
We weren’t even close to on track of becoming Twitter-scale. So we met for long meetings, trying to devise a strategy on how to get more engagement, rethinking the product, our message, etc. But after a few days we finally said it out loud: only a super tiny amount of people are summarizing, those that summarize aren’t doing it well for the most part, this is not working, and it’s not going to work.
We thought no amount of money or people would salvage the plan. We realized our idea was flawed and the product, unviable. So we decided to stop right here instead of miserably trying to save a sinking boat.
What have you taken away from this experience?
Business-savvy founders are important. We drank the Silicon Vllaey Koolaid that says engineers can do it all and business people are useless, but frankly that’s not true. Having someone that actually enjoys picking up the phone and looking for deals, partnerships and money is probably a good idea. We were all engineers more interested in product and tech than business, and this probably hurt us more than anything in my opinion. If I had to start a company again, I would never do it without a business guy under most circumstances.
Roles should be clearly defined from the beginning. We waited a long time to do that and it hindered our progress once decisions became tougher and options more numerous.
Equal equity split is very tricky to handle as no one has real power. If I had to start again I would likely want to have unbalanced equity between founders, one way or another. Makes things easier and debates shorter.
Having a business model makes things a lot easier in discussions with people, as most people always think about “how are you going to make money?” first, whether or not it makes sense at our stage. Not having a good answer to that question kind of stifles the train of discussion as people remain stuck on this unknown and don’t really want to go on about other subjects.
Silicon Valley might be a better place to start consumer-web services. It seems people would get more easily excited about that kind of thing over there, but that’s just a wild guess.
Charles is working on a few ideas on his own, I’m sure he’ll be glad to expand if you ask him.
I built an algorithmic trading platform on top of MtGox, which is very experimental so far, and I’m likely to go job hunting soon. I wouldn’t be opposed to meeting business people who have a startup idea and are looking for a technical cofounder either but haven’t been actively looking for them. I figure they should be the one to find me, although that might sound unfair/arrogant.