August 29, 2011
Five takeaways from folding a startup

A couple of months ago, after lots of introspection and sleepless nights, we decided to put Grinnit on a permanent hiatus.

We thought the best way to seek closure would be to share our story with the world.

We’re going to lay out our lessons learned with
Grinnit, in hopes that others in the startup community working on
bringing their passions to market can use our “folding” as a means of

For all of you toiling away, across the street from the graveyard,
let’s chat. Self doubt is a natural part of this journey. A need to
‘change the world’ gets you only so far. An irregular, and often
irrational, notion of invincibility often leads you down a rabbit hole.
You can’t turn around, so you keep burrowing.

Take 5 minutes and read below. Sound familiar? Then take another 10 minutes to take a walk and reflect.

1.  Understand where you fit in your market

Know your competition well without letting it cloud your
judgement or distract you.  It’s important to know your market inside
and out, and how your product is/will be positioned. In the photo space,
and more specifically photo collaboration, we saw competitors quickly
emerge since we started down this path in October. Each approaches
solving photo collaboration differently, and each brings about a new
problem: photo noise.

2.  Focus on the problem you are solving

When we first started Grinnit (then called Invizual), we wanted
to solve a costly collaboration problem for businesses that rely on
photographic information from distributed teams.  We kept it LEAN, and
through customer discovery and pre-sales evaluations, realized we were
solving a problem for a relatively small market that required costly
client acquisition and retention costs.

With the help of our new colleagues in the MassChallenge companies,
we realized we had the capability to solve a much larger perceived
problem of gathering and organizing photos from a group of people near
and far, but focused around a common event or theme - and Grinnit was

Some might call it a “Pivot” but we called it “listening to smart people and trying to solve their larger problems.”

And we did it.  Grinnit’s Alpha software got everyone’s photos
together, whether taken with our smartphone app or a DSLR, and put them
in one place and organized them.  Problem solved.

What we realized, through our experiments and use of the projects by
our emerging competition, is that this then raises a few new issues:

  • Empty, impersonal galleries suck - nobody wants to be the first to add a photo.  There needs to be something in
    there, or the gallery needs to be created by a person that is close to
    the contributor or content that resonates.  This is why when you check
    out the public galleries on competing products, you see empty content
  • When you have a “successful” gallery, you end up with a new problem:
    too many unimportant / low quality photos.  We had galleries with
    participation so high that there would be hundreds and hundreds of
    photos from only a handful of contributors.  Nobody wanted to look
    through this, let alone curate their own version.  Time on site and
    bounce rates were abysmal because people opened the window, checked out a
    couple, and closed the window.  Our competitors are also facing the
    same problem.
  • This then creates a “filtering” problem: either the user behavior
    (due to product branding or user experience) prompts contributors to
    only add photos that are high quality / high relevancy - what we came to
    call a “front end filter,” or there needs to be a sophisticated “back
    end filter” technology, preferably personalized, that lets you hide the
    content that’s not important to you.
  • Personalized filtering, or rather the “interestingness” of photos
    becomes an issue when large batches of photos are shared amongst a group
    of people, large or small. The more photos, the more of a distraction
    the data set becomes (and the less likely the user will find the content
    to be personally relevant). We saw where the market is going, and
    realized we were ill-equipped to tackle a BIG, hairy filtering problem
    that encompasses machine learning, sexy algorithms, and a bit of magic.
     The Corporate R&D departments and University researchers working on
    this problem are going to eventually solve it.  Our solutions were just
    not robust enough for us to be satisfied.
  • When we arrived at the filtering problem, we realized that we had solved the collaboration problem.

3.  Trust your founders and hold each other accountable

On January 20th, we drafted founders agreements that detailed
our commitments to one another and accomplishments we felt were
necessary for success, and a pledge to re-evaluate in 6 months - which
was Monday, June 20th.  We hit many of our milestones and commitments,
but there were many pieces of the puzzle missing. Sure, we could have
overlooked them, but it would have been a disservice to each other and
those that supported us.

4.  Know thy strengths & weaknesses

None of our founding team had ever completed the crash
course within a consumer web startup.  Much of our journey was spent
better understanding user behavior and coming up to speed in a highly
competitive, quickly evolving space.  We ultimately came to the
conclusion that our weaknesses coupled with a few constraints would
hinder our ability to 1) successfully compete and 2) win within the
market. Believe us, we like to win, but know when to pull our bets from the table. That brings us to…

5.  Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

Poker players call it Pot Committed: it’s
psychologically easier to keep your hand if you’re
financially/personally vested, than to fold. You’re not willing to cut
the cord, hoping an unforseen circumstance will rekindle the magic. Pot
Committed players almost always lose big.  In the end, stick to your gut
before you’re belly up.

Maybe you’ve never been in this situation, but maybe you know someone that is.

Spread. The. Word.

Help others in a similar situation.

all means, don’t let our story dissuade you from pursuing your dreams -
just take a mature look at whether it’s worth the sacrifice you’re

If you’re in Boston, tell us your story over a beer, we’d like to hear it.


The Grinnit Guys

This post originally appeared on the Grinnit blog and was written by the co-founders of Grinnit which includes R. Colin Kennedy, Alex Mathews, & John Babb.  Grinnit was a photo sharing & collaboration site.  They participated in last year's MassChallenge competition.