The Lost Years of Internet Start-ups

I was standing on a railway station platform near my parents’ house the other day, and saw a small coffee shack at one end of the platform. As I was waiting for my coffee, I saw the words “Est. 1997” printed on the wooden mantel. You see those words in restaurants, in bars, in local shops, in publishing houses. Usually it’s a point of pride and an indication of authenticity. It got me thinking about why you never see those words on web products.

A norm has been established around web businesses, that values rate of growth above all else. And the simplest equation that anyone tracking a start-up can use to estimate growth is [how big is it] divided by [how long has it been around].  I believe this leads many web businesses that are not yet at game-over scale, to mis-represent or obscure the age of their company to imply a more impressive growth pattern.

The first time I realised this I was watching a friend of mine present his start up at a big event, with many journalists in attendance. He is someone I look up to, and I have been a passionate user of his (pretty mainstream) product for many years, so was surprised to hear him say “we’ve been around for a year and already we’re XYZ big”. I could see journalists scribbling away getting it into their stories and wow it sounded impressive! No one seemed to be too fussed that the first alpha version came out in 2007. Start-up founders are typically hungry for journalists, VCs and others in the start-up landscape to embrace what they are doing and you see an example of founders warping the history of their start-up every day in TechCrunch, trying to compress their history to make the growth factor more impressive.

I started to notice myself doing it too. Songkick got started during in 2007 – 3 clueless kids with a passion for trying to improve live music, learning it all from scratch – web development, design, business development, growth, how the concert industry actually works - the whole enchilada. But I started to tell people we’d been going ‘for a few years’ or saying that we launched ‘properly’ in 2008. I noticed that when I warped the story a little, some people would be more impressed and everyone seemed to be doing it. I realised that without really thinking about it I’d started playing the game too. 

Unless you get lucky, it takes time to figure out how to make a profound, enduring difference to a market you love. I think we should be collectively more comfortable with the time we spend learning how to build something that people truly want. Songkick is now the second biggest concert site in the world, with much bigger ambitions than that, but yeah, it’s taken us 5 years to get where we are. And that’s ok I think. Typically, some of the highest integrity founders and entrepreneurs I most admire have always avoided juking the stats. Anthony from Hype Machine has always been clear and proud of starting HypeM in 2006, Perry Chen wrote a great post about the full founding story of Kickstarter and I love Ryan Schreiber’s old twitter bio – ‘fuckin with the haters for over 10 years’.

So from now on I’m going to stop playing the game. Songkick, Est. 2007.