too early in the game

Last month, I wrote about why Second Life failed so I didn’t have to write about why Second Life failed. I mean, that post wasn’t about reasons for failure, it was about the fact of failure. My thought was that there are many people who simply assume Second Life failed, and they’re wrong, and there are many who will passionately argue that Second Life has succeeded … and they’re wrong too. Failure can only be judged by the ones who were trying to succeed.

It would be safer for me to say that failure is a matter of perspective, for surely failure passes through the same lens as beauty in the eye of the beholder. I do understand that many SL Residents were on their own journeys, and so of course they are their own best judges of the success of those journeys. But it would be an artful evasion to claim that any of those journeys, or even all of them together, constitute the sum total equation for the success of Second Life. We were trying to do something more – or at least, something else – and we failed. (Of course, I’m talking about the team and the company that I knew, years ago. The team there today is on their own journey, which I know next to nothing about.)

So if I’m willing to be this myopic and insular about judging failure, you can bet I’d be just as parochial in reviewing the reasons. I’ve seen and heard a lot of speculation that I don’t agree with: poor strategy, worse execution; lack of focus, misplaced focus; poor technology, doomed architecture; dumb marketing, uncontrollable PR; niche market, bizarre customers; crazy culture, undisciplined development; bad hiring, bad management; feckless board, dominating board, ignorant board. I’ve heard it all, and while there may be a grain of something like truth here and there, none of these things holds real explanatory power as a reason for why Second Life failed.

We failed as people. We failed as a team. Our failure was intensely personal, particular to each person involved, and ruinous to the overall team.

I’m going to switch now from “we” to “I” but I want to be really clear about why. We Lindens were all in it together, and there is a broad sense in which all credit and blame goes to all of us … but not in this post. Here, I’m talking about maybe half a dozen people, and so it would be too much of a personal attack for me to try to describe the failures of anyone other than myself. I’m willing to attack myself in this forum, but not my former colleagues, all of whom I still respect and a few of whom I love like my own family. But I want you to remember the “we” because otherwise the rest of this post is going to seem incredibly egocentric: there’s a certain kind of self-blame that’s really self-aggrandizement, and though I regard my own failures as critical, even the most deluded version of the story couldn’t claim it was all about me.

So. I failed as a person. I failed the team. I was responsible for many elements of our strategy, execution, culture and management, and those decisions aren’t the ones I regret. What I regret, to the extent that I’m capable of regretting such a rich learning experience for me, is giving up. I don’t mean at the end, when I was tired and disillusioned and looking around at a company I didn’t recognize and a future I didn’t want to live. A lot earlier than that, I gave up on people that we needed, people who were flawed and fragile but necessary. I let people fail, I let people go, I let people hide in their illusions and fears, I let them give up because I’d already given up.

The irony was, when I joined the company, I was supposed to be an experienced hand that would bring some sanity to a crazy world. But I indulged my own worst instincts – throughout the craziest times, when I could’ve done the most good, I just brought more crazy. I was having fun, but I chose my own twisted growth over a higher goal, and at times I was just plain mean or selfish or drunk. I really wasn’t ready for the opportunity that Linden Lab presented to me. I really wasn’t the guy I should’ve been when I got there; I didn’t know what I needed to know until I left.

Too many of the key leaders at the Lab were working through similarly damaging personal limitations. You might ask whether this really points to a failure in culture or hiring or leadership, and that would be a fair question. It’s true that Linden had a way of hiring certain kinds of people and forcing them to confront their own deepest flaws – but I think that’s beautiful, a feature not a bug. What we needed was one or more or all of us to conquer our flaws, to enable the entire team to rise above the limitations of each of us. But none of us defeated our own demons, and so all of us perished.

I’ve been gone from Linden Lab for over two and a half years, and still my failure haunts me. The last day of the year is always a good moment to come to terms with the passage of time, and this New Year’s Eve I’ve decided I should finally accept the fact that I’m never going to let it go. I’ll try to reach peace through the zen realization that peace is unattainable.

why second life failed

This post is about why Second Life failed – but not in the sense of, “here are the reasons why Second Life failed,” but instead, “here is why it is true that Second Life failed.”

Slate published an article titled “Why Second Life Failed” that also, like this post, is not an elucidation of reasons why SL failed – but unlike this post, it is not an authentic attempt to support the proposition that SL indeed failed. It is simply an effort to market a new book by posting an article with a catchy headline. There is an unavoidable paradox in that any marketable headline with the structure “Why [X] Failed” must use for X something that has first achieved at least some significant success, otherwise the title would be too obscure to attract readers. I started a company called Bynamite that folded after less than two years – no one writes articles titled “Why Bynamite Failed” because no one’s ever heard of Bynamite.

This mild paradox isn’t sufficient defense for SL’s ardent users and thoughtful critics. As is often the case with posts about SL’s demise, the comments to the Slate article are full of well-informed, intelligent and passionate conversation that puts the original article to shame. At Terra Nova, Greg Lastowka suggests that SL remains fertile ground for study, with the pointed rejoinder that “Second Life never failed – the media reporting on Second Life failed.”

As a former Linden, I appreciate the desire to insist that Second Life hasn’t failed. I joined Linden Lab in 2005, at a time when we had a few dozen employees and registered users in the tens of thousands. By the time I left four years later, we had around 7 times the number of employees, several hundred times as many users, and almost a hundred times the revenue. It certainly felt like success to me. I left sated with a feeling of accomplishment, and great hope for the future of Second Life.

But I also left feeling depleted. We had stumbled our way from obscurity to something like prominence, but I didn’t know how to take it to the next level. We weren’t making progress despite having bountiful talent, desire and resources. We had a beautiful company, a real culture of beauty and love, genuine emotion for each other and for the world we were helping to build. And it wasn’t working, not well enough and not fast enough and not big enough.

Perhaps there never was a next level. Perhaps it was always the destiny of Second Life to be an innovative niche product for a select group of people, a worthy subject of serious study, a constantly evolving emporium of edge cases. Maybe we should have just hunkered down, and focused on maintaining an elaborate playground for only a select audience of passionate and creative people. We could eke out a fine living, and damn the rest of the world who just didn’t get it.

But I couldn’t damn the rest of the world, because dammit, I’m from that rest of the world. I was never a true Resident of Second Life; I was a visitor, an outsider with the good fortune to see the incredible things that people can do in a truly free environment. I was inspired, amazed and delighted by Second Life – as well as occasionally revolted, offended and demoralized – and the diversity and depth of this experience was a revelation to me, one that I believed that everyone can appreciate.

And I still believe that, which is why I have to accept that Second Life has failed (so far, we must always say so far). The reality is that Second Life is still a niche product, and to deny that I wanted it to be something more would dishonor the heartbreaking glory of our ambition. It’s fair to say that Facebook became our second life, but it’s also shortsighted. Not so long ago, people laughed at the proposition that anyone wanted to maintain a virtual presence online that could form the basis of social interaction. Facebook did put an end to the dismissive chuckles on that topic.

But it’s equally laughable to say that this is where we’ll stop, that the final destination of online interaction consists of wall posts and text messages in two dimensions. I still believe that there’s no sensible way to define an impassible boundary between where we are today and a time when people “live” in a three-dimensional virtual environment. I’m still a true believer, an old true Linden in that way. So I have to admit that Second Life has failed.

So far.

the pages of illusions

Ah, it’s that time of year, when we make promises to ourselves that we won’t keep.  For virtually every new year since the mid ’90s, I’ve made at least one of the following three resolutions: (1) get a new job, (2) get more exercise, (3) write a book.  Totals over the last fifteen years:  9 jobs, 2 years in which I exercised more than the prior year, 1 book (unpublished).

To be fair, 7 out of the 9 jobs were really a single job to me:  learning how to be an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.  I’ve learned some good lessons, and although I didn’t achieve the outcomes I aimed for, I’m not sad about the experiences of the last dozen years.  How can I be sad?  After all, everything I’ve learned only gives me fodder for another book . . .

I’m going to title this book The Age of Illusions.  If I can do this properly, I’ll be working on three intertwining themes:

Illusions of youth.  In your 20s and 30s, you’re at the peak of your powers, or at least in the prime of your unrestrained ambitions.  You’re out of childhood, with the energy of youth and none of the detritus of age. Maybe I’m taking turning 40 too seriously, but I mean this as a celebration, not as resignation:  If you haven’t crashed into a wall by the time you’re 40, you’re doing it wrong.  If you haven’t learned your limitations the hard way, you wasted the resilience of youth.

Illusions of enterprise.  My core work experience of the last decade was at a startup that could be considered the most successful failure of the Internet age.  Changing the world is hard, and most of the people who say they’re doing it aren’t even really trying.  At Linden Lab, we weren’t just trying to change the world, we were trying to recreate it in a better image.  We didn’t get where we wanted to be.  Some say that failure is a badge of honor, but I can only agree with that sentiment where the goal was so great that even trying is reasonably regarded as lunacy.

Illusions of empire.  The first decade of this millenium was a rollicking cascade of unreal events.  The background of all of our tales of this decade may be the end of the American empire.  It’s a story too large for me to tell with my limited skills, but somehow I have to acknowledge that I’m fingerpainting on the canvas of epochal history.

Folks, don’t hold your breath:  I estimate that it’ll take me almost six years to write this book.  I think I’ll only average around a page per week, and I’m aiming for at least 300 pages.  Ah well – it’s nice to have a slot filled for those annual resolutions all the way through 2016.

Happy New Year!

my baby’s not ugly

I’ve written about startups that persist despite the failure of others, as well as about startup postmortems, so this may seem ironic: we’ve decided to stop active work on Bynamite. To make a long story short, my cofounder and I have both received compelling offers to work at large Internet companies, offers that we don’t think rational people would refuse. Unfortunately, the companies involved do not want to purchase Bynamite.

As a startup founder, whenever anyone tells you that your idea won’t work, that it won’t be popular, that no one will care, that no one wants it – you hear all of this as: “Your baby is ugly.” Founders invest time, money, emotion and the goodwill of their friends and family into the company; it really can feel like raising a baby. It saddens me that I haven’t been able to find a home for our pride and joy.

I couldn’t even get the company “acqhired” – that is, have our company acquired merely in order to hire Ian and me. That kind of “hacquisition” seems pretty common around Silicon Valley these days, but I failed to get it done. It hardly makes a difference though – a hire wrapped up in a sale is merely a mask. Our goal wasn’t to build a resume in the form of a company, we were aiming a lot higher than just getting hired. It’s important to own your failures, and this experience has certainly given me plenty to learn from.

But I’m proud of what we were able to do in the time we had. We put out a beautiful service that received nice launch coverage and some industry mindshare. Serious publications highlighted Bynamite as a useful tool and a company to watch. We took a little shot at the opportunity and had good enough results to seriously question why we won’t take it further. I’ll probably detail and try to answer those questions in a later post, but not for a while.

In the meantime, I still have a passion for the relationship between online advertisers and consumers. To the extent my new duties allow, I’ll keep Bynamite up as a hobby project outside of work. I’ll consider selling the assets to someone who cares about the product, or perhaps even turn it into an open source or otherwise community-supported effort. If you have any ideas about what to do with Bynamite, feel free to comment here or send me a note via LinkedIn.

a brief history of failure

VentureBeat was kind enough to publish a piece I submitted to their Entrepreneur Corner, under the title “How to make your startup succeed where others have failed.”  That’s a good title, by a smart editor who knows what people want to read.  I actually submitted a more modest title, “A brief history of failure” – because I’m actually not so sure I know how to succeed where others have failed.  I’m just saying that a history of failure in something you want to do isn’t a reason to stop trying.  Please go give it a read and comment there if you like!

mistakes were made

Compare and contrast -

In the startup world, failure is a badge of honor.  An honest postmortem of mistakes made along the way is greatly appreciated by the community.  For example:

The comments on each of those posts are overwhelmingly sympathetic, admiring and supportive.  Celebrating failure in context is a distinguishing aspect of our business culture versus many other countries.

In contrast, when the President of the US admits mistakes, the national and international coverage seems to imply that the admission itself its newsworthy and perhaps unwise.  Comments are largely vitriolic and incoherent.

Now, I think that failure can be overrated as an indicator of future success.  But I firmly believe that the openness to failure in business is one of the things that makes this country truly great.  It’s ironic and sad that this cultural gem does not extend into our political arena.

UPDATE 4 Oct 2010: Here’s a great list of the 25 best startup postmortems.