Entrepreneurial Resilience And Creative Metamorphosis

Back in early 2015, mobile live-streaming hit the scene, with products Meerkat and Periscope taking different paths — Meerkat hit the market, raised a big seed followed by a Series A led by Greylock, while Periscope was scooped up by Twitter to be integrated into its platform as an answer to the forthcoming, home-brewed “live” product from Facebook.

Both Meerkat and Periscope teams built products to change the world, specifically how individuals could communicate 1:1, in groups, or as a public broadcast mechanism. Facebook, with its girth, appeared to use its distribution advantage and in-house product chops to win the space. Twitter helped out with an assist, taking far too long to properly integrate Periscope into its core clients, and not keeping up with Facebook in terms of both front- and back-end issues. And, Meerkat, built by the parent company, Life On Air, opted for the VC route, staying independent, going up against a Goliath and Twitter. As 2015 ended, there seemed to be clear winners and losers in the race to claim the mantle prize for mobile live video.

Or, so it seemed…

Raising a big round of venture capital from a notable firm for a hot consumer product will draw a lot of attention — both good attention and bad. After the hype peak, Meerkat streams just tailed off into the trough, left to doggy-paddle with its $10M+ in venture capital. A friend of mine who is very close to the company would remark to me that he wasn’t sure what would happen to Life On Air — a good team, perhaps not “great” in the eyes of a potential acquirer like Facebook. Tech blogs cast off Meerkat, and it just seemed like fact that the company would likely slowly wind down. It’s so hard to become relevant, even for a few days, and once a product loses cool, loses momentum, it’s basically impossible to regain it.

But, unless one spends a lot of time with a company, founders, and early employees, it’s hard to know what the team is made of. Now that we know Life On Air, in retiring Meerkat as a product, quietly built up a new live mobile video communications app, HouseParty. This new app builds on lessons learned from the Meerkat days alongside new features to cleverly lock-in and expand one’s social network. Nothing yet is decided, but Life On Air has done well enough to recently score a $50M investment from Sequoia.

From afar, one explanation for Life On Air surviving and finding this new space could focus on the creation and iteration on product feature development. Yes, surely the team must have terrific mobile product chops and the brass tacks to build a system that could handle. But, I like to think there’s another explanation — an explanation that’s less analytical, less quantitative, less growth-hacky. I don’t know the team or the individual players or the backstory, but I like to think these folks have special entrepreneurial gifts that enabled them to stand quiet and resilient in the face of brutal competition and the Tech-Twitterati hype vortex. (For a good, recent backstory on Life On Air, read this piece by The Verge’s Casey Newton.)

Money has been relatively easy to come by for investors and founders alike over the past few years. There is some good from this, as more people can enter the ecosystem, more founders can have a shot, and we have more product experimentation. There is also some bad, which I’ve chronicled before — and one of those bad elements is that when money is easy to raise, we can all take it for granted. More specifically, we can have investors who place bets that would break a fund model and be against their own LP interests; and we can have founders who can take money off the table before their own employees and investors, or not have an incentive to exit their company properly if they know another investor is just waiting to fund his/her next startup. Imagine the range of options before a team like Meerkat — “hey, take some money off the table!” or “Hey, just wind this down and here’s $2m for the next idea” and so on. Yet, they carried on and went forward on their quest to change the world through product development.

If there is one trait in others that makes me nearly choke up, it’s when I think about the focused resilience individuals and groups can demonstrate in keeping their energy channelled on the same project over many years. I think back to the unconventional rise of Whatsapp, or how ThredUp pivoted its way to profitability, or how Orchestra transformed to Mailbox, or how Bippy became Tophatter, or how a fund like USV was born from the ashes of Flatiron, and many more. An important distinction: An individual’s resilience across a career is rare, but even rarer is when resilience rears its head on a specific project, product, or company. It’s for that reason I felt compelled to write about Life On Air — I don’t know you, but I salute your entrepreneurial resilience and creative metamorphosis, and I will be rooting for you.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus