Building on a “Failed” Product: An Interview with Matt Shobe
This interview is part of our Entrepreneur Interview series.
Search for "dedication" on Dictionary.com and a picture of Matt Shobe will appear. Matt is one of the minds behind FeedBurner, which was acquired by Google for $100M. 7 years later, he's now doing product and design at AngelList. We had the chance to sit down with Matt to talk about saying "yes", Google acquisitions and Dave Grohl.
Building on a "Failed" Product
1. Every entrepreneur needs a great origin story. Why did you first start FeedBurner?
We started it because it every startup my three co-founders and I did together was built on a piece of the previous company. Our first mutual startup experience was creating a product kind of like Yammer – built in 1996, a good twelve years too early. It had a great alerts feature to let you know when co-workers posted something you cared about. The business didn’t succeed, but our CTO Eric Lunt almost immediately suggested we point that feature at the Internet and we called it Spyonit.com - one of the first consumer web alerts services. That became our first co-founded startup.
Spyonit was acquired. But the acquirer turned it into an enterprise product, the dotcom bust happened, and things generally came apart once more. Eric again spotted the next cornerstone piece – RSS feeds – which had become a very frequent source for our alerts to monitor. He made the case that an entire business could be built around giving feed publishers content performance analytics and an ads marketplace to monetize their feeds. FeedBurner went live in February 2004 because we all wanted to see if the third time working together might be the charm.
Destroying the Business
2. You also ran Burning Door and Spyonit.com (acquired by 724 Solutions) prior to FeedBurner. What was the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
I’ve been fond of saying the best thing about being a startup co-founder is that every day you have a chance to destroy the business. That’s necessarily the worst thing – the level of responsibility and uncertainty that goes with making something new, burning investor cash in the race to find product/market fit, and being accountable for your words wherever they echo in the digital forever.
You just have to do your best and there is almost no short-term feedback loop. No one in corporate is going to say “you’ve got the moves, Jimmy. Keep plugging away and you’ll go places in this town.” You just don’t know. To poorly paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, the idea that got you started may be the only fire to carry through the grayest of days.
The Power of Dave Grohl
3. Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?
In work, I gotta say Dave Grohl. I can’t think of someone better to bind the entrepreneur’s experience to music careers in a way most can relate to. He’s had several sets of co-founders, but he’s also led the show. He’s able to play just about every instrument and contribute where needed - even just on loan to another project. But everyone knows he’s a badass behind the skins. He’s freaking tireless. His work rate puts most of his Gen X peers to shame. Most of all he wants the music to be front-and-center as the product – not his notoriety.
When interviewed about his movie Sound City, he said “to me, personally, it's the most important thing I've done because it's not for me…ultimately I'm trying to turn people on to what it's like to be a musician…so that there's another kid in a garage, and in 20 years, my daughter will hand me a record and say, ‘Dad, you might like this,’ and it'll be some new band that's the biggest band in the world.” People who seek to share their spark with no expectations of reward inspire the hell out of me.
Say 'Yes' More Often
4. You’ve got an impressive resume to say the least. You went from FeedBurner to Google to BigDoor to, now, AngelList. What has it been like transitioning from an entrepreneur to an intrapreneur?
I’m not sure it’s been a big transition. You have different goals and different ways of working together in each experience, but I hope I’m always the same guy, saying “yes” to every reasonable request. I hope I’m always accountable – solving meaningful problems for real people through good design and craftsmanship. I need to help build it. Luckily I’ve been able to do so in every startup and even at Google.
5. FeedBurner was acquired by Google. There are a ton of 20-something entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley hoping their startups land on Google’s radar as well. What was that experience like? Was it hard “handing over the keys”?
No. It was a good time to make the deal (says 20/20 hindsight). We felt that AdSense + Analytics + FeedBurner would be a wicked combination for the publishers we’d worked with. Of course we didn’t know the DoubleClick acquisition was going to happen within a couple years - but that should’ve been even greater for the package. The Google ads projects I worked on valued strategically inclined designers who could prototype and who wanted to influence multiple aspects of the product, so I felt well-positioned to keep contributing.
The rise of social media, the Great Recession, and perhaps sunspots (who knows) kept FeedBurner from evolving as a product within Google. One of my co-founders, Steve Olechowski, considered repositioning FeedBurner as a social media analytics dashboard – a great insight the product was still technically positioned to provide, even in 2010. But I think it was just too late and Google’s eyes were on other prizes.
Know Your Solution, Know Your Problem
6. I think it’s safe to describe you as a product and design guy. What are the biggest product and design-related mistakes you see entrepreneurs making?
Building solutions they want to build, not solving problems customers need solved. Of course there are black swan products nobody’s asking for that require genius leaps-of-faith to bring to life, and of course there are brave new categories to invent. Be brave - but those are mighty long odds.
As a new entrepreneur you’re better served focusing on pain someone you have access to can verify. Test your hypothesis with a framework like Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad. If they offer to throw money at your solution to make that pain go away, you’re on the right path. Remember SceneServer? We had a solution we thought was world-changing, but the world wasn’t really asking for it. And it was too early to change much of anything in the enterprise.
Cultivate a Network of Mentors
7. You’re based in Seattle, but you also seem to spend a lot of time in San Francisco. How would you compare the two startup environments? How important is location when starting up?
Location is less important now, thanks to the many ways you have to connect with almost everywhere in real time. But there is no getting around the power established entrepreneurial communities have because of their networks. If you trust Brad Feld’s views on startup communities, it’s entrepreneurs leading the way to establish great communities by example of their hustle – not governments, universities, better business bureaus, etc. Silicon Valley/SF was one of the first places this took deep root in technology business, so it’s had a substantial head start.
I think you’re better off with a network of mentors to help you avoid making mistakes they’ve crossed off their bucket lists. Seattle has a growing roster of high-caliber founders who frequently make themselves available to the next wave. But you don’t necessarily have to find them in your town, or move to theirs.
Get to know experts where they live and get them thinking about working with you in the future by giving them some of your own time or expertise today. Reciprocity. What you do need is a well of talent that can help you build your company – if where you live has those people, especially trusted former co-workers you can tap to get the band back together – it’s probably great. If you look left and right and don’t see any welcome faces, you might move.
Content Is Still King
8. In understanding what Onboardly does and what our readers are interested in (PR and content marketing), did you use either (or both) to grow FeedBurner and the other projects you’ve worked on?
We did, and everybody still should. Building an audience goes faster if you share something hard-won from your own experience, and perceived openness is an outcome. You may have deep analytics on consumer behavior – give people a taste, and keep doing so. Or maybe you recently had access to a notable figure in your industry who happens to be a supporter or customer. Interview them! If they give permission for you to share the piece, they get more exposure, you gain authority, and your audience sees a bit of a new side of someone they follow.
Two last things: customers have great BS detectors; don’t pander. And if you screw up, come clean as fast as possible from as far up the leadership chain as necessary. Own your mistakes – before somebody else franchises them for you. Look how well Buffer bounced back last fall from a major data privacy breach. Clinical.
Matt Shobe is a serial entrepreneur (@FeedBurner sold to @Google, @Spyonit, college resume publishing service). He's currently working on product and user experience at AngelList. His head is full of zero-billion dollar business ideas.