Be Careful What You Wish For : Color’s Cautionary Tale

TheNextWeb broke the news that Apple is acquiring Color Labs.  This closes what was one of the highest profile, most hyped startups of the last 5 years.  In my time in Silicon Valley, I’d say Google’s launch of Google Wave and the launch of Color were the top two in building massive hype that then came up really short.  (Do you all remember when people were *begging* for Google Wave invites?)

And that’s ok.  Sh*t happens. New ideas fail every day.  That’s reality.  What *has* changed I think that the costs of failing are dropping.  A lot.  Moore’s Law, the continuing growth and robustness of cloud-based infrastructure and open source tools and development environment, and the development of methodologies like the Lean Startup, have all combined to help teams run customer development cheaply and quickly.  They can build and vet ideas quickly and when they start raising money, they have a much better sense of what works and why.

Color ran counter to this–it went big.  On every front.

I think the cautionary tale is that you should be careful what you wish for.  I was once invited to judge a startup pitch contest.  This contest was held at Color’s Headquarters in downtown Palo Alto.  This was post Color launch, and the bloom was definitely off the rose.  Half of Color’s office space was allocated now as kind of event space, which is where we held this startup pitch competition.

Anyway, before the contest, there was a long networking cocktail type event.  I remember standing there talking to different startup teams.  One of the teams I talked to pitched me their idea.  I said to them, ‘hey, what you’re doing is interesting.  I am not interested in investing in it [for wahtever reason, can't remember] but let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.’   One of the founders looked at me, then glanced around the room and said to me, ‘Well, there’s a $42m check sure would help,’ referring of course to the monster Series A Round that Color had reportedly raised.

My response: “Look, be careful what you wish for.  If I had invested $42M in this thing, and now half of the prime real estate in Palo Alto was being used as event space for cocktail parties and startup pitches, I would want to fire everything that breathed.  This would make me so angry.  Go out and build something awesome.  Then the world of investors will find their way to your door.”

Too much of the press and Silicon Valley community celebrates the raising of money.  Indeed, a raise is seen as press worthy.  I’m less convinced that its news worthy–some founder convinced some investor to write a check.  Meh.

To me what is news worthy is winning a customer, getting a really high profile, value added partnership nailed and in market, landing a truly world class exec or developer.  The really important building blocks to constructing a real company are what we should be celebrating.  Not that you got someone to write you a check.  Focus there, and do that great and the funding announcements will find a way of happening.


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