Startups · Investments

Why I failed at Product Incubation and why you probably will too?

Dustin Williams Business Systems, Software Development, Information Technology

October 11th, 2016

4 years ago I had a great idea.. I'd invest my time, technical expertise & intellectual property in startups as an investor . It's certainly a not a new idea and I won't be the last person who thinks of it. Here's why I didn't work for me.

When I started Propulsion there wasn't anything called a Product Incubator not in NYC anyway. There were a couple of companies doing it but not as their main focus. So I did a ton of research, talked with founders, investors and they loved the idea. Founders were struggling to find tech cofounders and engineers were getting burnt out trying to do everything by themselves. Everyone needed a team and I could provide that.

I went to Cofounderslab & meetups. The pitch was simple; let's build web & mobile products as an investment in a startup and if the startup is able to get funding and traction we'll have our people join the startup. If the idea took off we'd all join. The idea resonated with engineers in a big way, when no one else could find a tech cofounder, I recruited 12. There was no way to know it at the time but that was the first false validation. Of course the engineers didn't all stick around.. Most of them were not really committed, they just wanted to get rich quick and they walked when it came time to sacrifice and put in real work (keep this in mind, it's a reoccurring theme in early stage startups). By year 2 we had 3 partners and a bunch of employees.

I didn't do this in a vacuum. I met the other companies and got advice from their CEOs. The guy from Startup Giraffe is the one I think of most right now. When I met him, he was exhausted and cynical. He warned me against taking this direction. I thought I had learned from his mistakes but I just made new ones. Here's what they told me and what I'll tell you.

  • You'll be a dev shop / contractor working at a discount rate.
  • Taking equity is a mess.
    • I was warned about the the tax liabilities
    • I wasn't warned that investors wouldn't like us taking equity.
  • Founders who know what they're doing & have a truly great idea don't want to give up equity.
  • Founders will be learning on your dime.

As your going through it you don't know where you're making mistakes here are mine. Keep in mind, that I was pitched to by hundreds of founders. For each investment we took on, I had to speak to about 100-150 founders. It did get easier over time though. As I grew my network, friends started to send me higher quality leads. I've left this purposely general as I can't discuss some details.

One of our first investments. The founder was smart, charismatic, successfully built & sold multiple companies, had tons of industry connections, had big well known customers lined, impressive board of directors, mentors, & brought me in to the pitches. Everything a startup should have right? We built the MVP and it just sat there. We had some interest but after about 2 years it was totally dead. The lesson learned here was we had made the investment and the founder didn't have any skin in the game. It was easy for him to work on other things and when the time came they were able to walk with very little pain other then a bruised ego. So we took that lesson forward.. Founders have to be as invested in the product as we were.

Our next investment was a disaster.. The writer of a popular startup book introduced us to a startup in the midwest. One of the partners was a product manager from one of the largest tech companies and managed a product line worth hundreds of millions of dollars & the other partner was a serial entrepreneur with exceptional domain experience and a network of customers. They had contracted some college kid in India to build his V1 product (not MVP) and the guy just disappeared. They needed someone to finish it up so they could finalize their seed funding round from a bunch of rich friends. I talked to the investors and they assured me the money was there, they just wanted proof the product could launch. A jr partner of mine audited the code and he said it wasn't good but it was workable. He totally blew the assessment! We took on the deal and that partner started to work on the code. Except every time he made a change it broke everything. A months worth of work was dragged out to 3 months. The delay caused the founders to fight non-stop and the startup imploded. Our jr partner quit & I had to pay him off for his equity. All in all it cost us 50k plus time lost. The product did eventually launch but it was dead in the water. Not one single customer acquired!

This one is more of a cautionary tale then an investment. Word had gotten around and I was approached by a unicorn founder.. This guy had created a product that had a billion, let me repeat that BILLION dollar exit to major tech company. WOW talk about validation.!! But this person didn't make that much money from the deal. By the time the exit had occurred they really didn't have to much equity left. They wanted another bigger pay day. Their idea wasn't great, it was reductive (AirBnB for X) and a niche product at best but they knew what they was doing. So we went in to negotiations. It was clear they were figuring things out as they went along and kept moving the goal posts. At one point they switched their position and wanted me to be the CEO instead of them. They promised to be back me as a mentor and would be the product manager. They would open all the doors and get the investors on board. I was flattered but that made me super skeptical. Why would I be the CEO instead of them? They was far better qualified. But I went with it for a little while. In the end, they wanted 51% of the company, controlling interest, had the option to kick me out for no reason and wouldn't commit to anything they promised in a contract. After 3 months of work on the deal my partners & lawyer told me shut it down and I had to agree.

Our final investment is what did us in. We partnered with a founder who had their MVP developed, had investors onboard and was partnered with an ambitious and fast growing company that is a part of a large conglomerate. This company saw the startup as their way of testing a new business direction while keeping their risk low. They would be the buyer and the exit would happen as soon as we proved the idea. The startup was in the middle of a rebuild and my job was to bring the v2 product. Now this whole thing was a house of cards. The founder had made promises to everyone and was lying non-stop just to keep things going. Their MVP was supposed to have a propriety algorithm that was the core intellectual property that everything was going to be built on. Except they couldn't get it to work. The data science team that built it was supposed to move it to a new infrastructure and update it but they couldn't get it to turn back on. Since the core engine wasn't running, the dev shop that was doing the rebuild of v1 had built everything on dummy data. When we finally got the engine back online nothing the built had worked! The new v1 app had to have substantial rewrites, meanwhile the data science team were making changes without telling anyone which kept breaking things. Finally when the engine was back online I was able to test it and IT DIDN'T WORK! Four months in and I found out the core of the product was total B.S. I told the founder and they said ignore it, it's ok it didn't have to work, it just has to seem like it works. OMG! Well the delays caused the investors to drop out. That sent things in to a tail spin. The data science team just disappeared, the dev doing the rebuild of the v1 quit before it was finished. It was a disaster nothing worked it all had to be rebuilt from zero.Just as I started that the founder decided to change direction and wanted to spend 50-70k of our development resources on an investor pitch!! That was the nail in the coffin, you don't spend that kind of money to try to impress an investor.

After this last investment my partners and I realized this model couldn't work for us. We did have a somewhat successful dev shop and we could focus on that and grow it but no one had the energy to start over again, sowe decided to shut down the company and move on.

Here's my take away. Somethings I wish people would have been able to tell me.

  • If you go this route be prepared to be lied to a lot by founders. At best they have a fake it till you make it attitude, at worse they're con-artists.
  • You can't spot false validation when it's happening. It's impossible to distinguish from real validation.
  • Customers will mislead you on what they need and are willing to pay for.
  • Investors are unpredictable and will set ridiculous standards that increases costs & extends timelines.
  • Startups will grossly overestimate what they can accomplish.
  • Very few people actually know what a MVP is.
    • Most people think they can skip the prototyping stage if they are building an MVP and that's a huge mistake.
  • Most MVPs can't actually solve a problem or aren't engaging enough to get users/customers or investors on board.
  • Very few startups practice Lean Methodology or understand what it actually means.
    • Lean methodology has overhead costs that most startups can't handle.
    • Startups think Lean is about building a product instead of building a business.
    • Expert practicers of Lean can validate a product concept before building a product.
  • Equity is worthless until it isn't and the vast majority never will be.
  • A startup needs to have a larger business team in place then most think.
  • Software development is expensive and agile/lean makes budgeting impossible to predict.
  • People overestimate design and underestimate utility. Pretty products are a novelty not a means to success.

Dustin Williams Business Systems, Software Development, Information Technology

October 11th, 2016

I think it's useful but the author of The Lean Startup has done major damage to the methodology by turning it in to pop culture self help book. Like most self help books he gives you just enough to think you understand the topic but no where near enough to actually practice it. 

I think people would be be far better off studying Lean Six Sigma, Lean Enterprise, the Toyota Product System, etc. But keep in mind these are very complicated topics and they require a huge time investment to learn. Since most founders haven't taken the time to dig in to the details they're filling in those blanks by guessing as they go which is far more costly IMO.

Dustin Williams Business Systems, Software Development, Information Technology

October 11th, 2016

I'd add that Slicing the Pie was only semi-effective for us. Even though it seemed very fair when we started. My partners later came to regret using it and were a bit demotivated by their slice. They also limited me in bringing in other partners out of fear that they're slice would shrink and because those people didn't prove themselves like the founding team did.

I can't say that it would be any better any other way. Just keep in mind that there are always unforeseeable downsides to every approach. 

Dustin Williams Business Systems, Software Development, Information Technology

October 11th, 2016

Guru - I totally understand where you're coming from about the complexity of software development. It can be very hard for non-engineers to understand just how complicated even simple features can be to implement.

To be fair they most people don't have any point of reference to compare what we do to. Very few professionals have deal with the level of complexity or constant change the engineers have to manage every day. This leads them to either overestimate what we can accomplish or underestimate the difficulty of certain tasks. 

For instance Natural Language Processing. Non-engineers think it's magic and can solve huge problems. Engineers who deal with it know that it's crude and hard to get anything meaningful from without huge investments & a team of semantic experts. 

Dane Madsen Organizational and Operational Strategy Consultant

October 11th, 2016

This is the most enlightening and articulate posting I have seen to date on FD. Thank you for the self examination, in public no less. Dane Madsen 206.900.5852 Mobile Sent from my mobile device. Forgive typographical and grammatical errors.

David Wolfe Product Strategy & Development

October 11th, 2016


Great stuff. I am a software engineering / product management type that has been working with/for startups throughout my entire career. Your post gives voice to the fact that startups are hard and frought with far more risk than most professionals are truly willing to assume. I also love that you point to the discipline required to `do` lean and that the complexity involved with any software development efforts is beyond the comprehension of folks who have never been there.

Building winning products & businesses is hard:
- you have to find a high value, unexplored market problem and discover amazing, novel products & business models to address them.
- you have to build a team, culture, and platform that will support the `long term` effort and investment that the process in the first bullet entails.

Wow - hard with lots of pain. This is the reality of most startup efforts that is not talked about in modern `pop` startup culture. Your post was authentic, detailed, and heart felt. Really resonated with me.


Gabor Nagy Founder / Chief architect at Skyline Robotics

October 12th, 2016

@Dustin Great post! Very insightful. Thank you for sharing your story.
You are right. Software is hard. Good / well-engineered software is a 100x as hard.
Finding good software engineers (not just "programmers") and motivating them for "every day" tasks is not easy either.
The really great ones want to work on cutting-edge "moving-mankind-forward" kind of projects, not Web / mobile apps.

Dustin Williams Business Systems, Software Development, Information Technology

October 12th, 2016

Gabor - In my experience great software engineers are really more in to the challenge of the work. No one wants to keep rewriting the same old ETL, business logic & CRUD operations every day. I spent nearly ten years building intra/extra-nets and informational sites, it was torturous.

That said working on the cutting edge is painful as hell.. The tools are nonexistent, no documentation, no best practices and all it takes is one major update and years worth of work becomes obsolete.

I disagree with you on web apps.. web applications are the open standard and that will win in the end.. What will change is the platforms and presentation. IOT, VR, AR, AI it will all still be web.. 

David Austin Relentless problem solver and innovator.

Last updated on May 17th, 2017

Thank you for a worthwhile contribution in what has otherwise seemed a spate of worthless emails getting sent to me by founder dating.

I'll add this to my list of lessons learned. Hindsight is 20-20. These have been my experiences as well. Leave nothing to chance and don't believe anyone's claimed "validation" until you've done the validation yourself to see how committed the presumed customers are. Never reinvent the wheel, make sure you have the right team, dedicated, and with mad skills. When enlisting help be picky: (1) realize there are few real entrepreneurs, and (2) avoid trusting mission critical to those who are just looking for work.

If a startup seems to be open to new management or if everything seems up for sell, run away.

Constantly validate, even after it's validated, and always be ready to pivot ... Never throw good $ after bad, and never expect money to fix anything. Too much $ too fast is a common death knell for seemingly adequately funded startups. It attracts the wrong talent and encourages putting the cart (or the MVP) before the horse (or the customer).

After getting burned by technical issues way too many times I've started analyzing the expected difficulty to my startup investment assessment strategy before committing any resources (note that the difficulty of a given startup is itself a rats nest to assess). I do however think that the more challenging startups are better left to enterprises ... Which is great if you're into that environment, but expect that even they will often pull the carpet out prematurely when executive changes to their company are imminent - which is a common scenario when an enterprise is investing in multiple startup initiatives. Just be wary.

Ryan Yanchuleff Senior Software Engineer, Co-founder, and Entrepreneur

October 11th, 2016

Curious about your take on Lean Methodology.  I'm unclear from your takeaways at the end what your thoughts are on it.  Are you implying that Lean Methodology is inherently bad/wrong or just that most founders either don't implement it correctly or have incorrect or unrealistic expectations about it?  We have tried to practice Lean Methodology in our business, but it often has left me feeling like we are moving too slowly in an effort to conserve cash that we are missing bigger opportunities that are available to us.  (eg: fear of taking the leap if you will). 

Joe Walling CTO, software developer, software architect

October 11th, 2016

@Dustin, you have written a very insightful post that is certainly making me think. I have done some small projects with with an ownership stake and have mixed results, mainly due to the other party not having skin in the game and not doing their part. I have since adjusted our approach. While we still will do software development for an equity stake, I am much more cautious about who I will do these deals with. I am not ready to drop this model, but your post gives me even more to think about whenever we are asked to partner with someone.