On Ending Fluent
OK by now you probably know that Fluent.io, the email startup that I founded along with @themaninblue and jochen has announced it's closing down. There will no doubt be a lot of speculation about this. Most of what I've read is of the **Oh, that's disappointing...** variety. But as with all such discussions some of it is harsh, and some just plain wrong.
So here's me setting the record straight. The disclaimer is, I don't speak for my colleagues; so take this as you like:
The tin-foil hatters will never believe me, but I promise the rest of you that we had made this decision long before Sparrow announced its acquisition by Google. Fluent's model was never similar to Sparrow's. Sparrow was all about a single transaction--like a game or an old-school app. We knew from the start that this was not going to pay the bills, and that despite the great app that they put out, it wasn't particularly revolutionary with respect to the core problem--email.
What we wanted to do was build a communications crucible. One that could take all your data and make sense of it, to not just separate the chaff from the grain, but also help you discover things--things that weren't merely needles in the haystack. In other words, we wanted to yield more than merely the sum of all your emails, distilled and presented for easy consumption.
Our long term roadmap focused on things like building a workflow between members of a team, a revisioned history of changes to a file or document, with a corresponding comment thread. To know, by person, everything about them--what's on their mind (Twitter/FB), how important they are to you (the frequency graph of comms), the mood of chatter in a discussion (we had prototypes that extracted topics, mood words). To read patterns in your contact with the world around you that might provide a kind of insight that you were simply not aware of.
There is an astronomical wealth of data available in your personal correspondence. This includes social networks, calendars, cloud file systems, forums, wikis, documents and more. We wanted to take a user's interaction with their digital world to the next level.
Email was just the first step.
You can see that this is a valid, if ambitious goal, with the recent trend in apps--Google Now, Cue, Siri, all feature small facets of this unified communications crucible and personal narrative.
Unfortunately, I think we got caught up in trying to be a better Gmail. All our early feedback from users basically just highlighted the delta between us and Gmail. So this was a baseline we started chasing.
Gmail is a fantastic service--it is the app I used the most bar none before Fluent. For most users it is good enough. And therein lies the problem.
I recently spoke with the former CEO and founder of Zimbra, who told me that he would simply walk out of a client if they were using Gmail--it's just not worth trying to beat them. He knew that Zimbra was better, but getting that across wasn't going to happen (you're probably thinking even now, that you can't imagine how it's better than Gmail).
There are a hundred little reasons why I think Fluent did things better than Gmail, but for most people Gmail is good enough. And even if someone buys those hundred little reasons, they don't necessarily add up to a single forcing function to switch.
Add to this, the fact that we were a webapp first and you have the exposure of navigating away and never coming back. Mobile apps have the benefit of (an albeit tiny bit of) screen real-estate. A webapp does not have this luxury to remind someone to come back for a second visit. Let alone the third, fourth or tenth that you really need for stickiness.
In both the literal and metaphorical senses, the muscle memory of
g-m-a-i-l.com is just too powerful to overcome. This is not to say you can't build a popular email service (for instance, by selling hosting for domains, providing security features, or simply by competing with Hotmail and Yahoo), but what we attempted was an enormous uphill challenge.
Things would likely have been different if we hadn't burned a lot of our time building feature parity with Gmail.
I don't want to get too deep into this, but let it suffice to say that we had nearly closed a round and a key investor pulled out at the last minute (we could have taken the rest of the round and kept on, but then we'd be back at the raising table a lot sooner than we liked). We had already burned several months putting together this round and were looking at another long stretch of uncertainty at this stage.
The cost of indexing and serving your Email is almost prohibitively high. I imagine you will find that a service like Yahoo! or Hotmail is heavily subsidized and probably loss-making, even after 10+ years of life. So you need a disproportionately expensive runway to do what we attempted.
Also being in Australia automatically means many VCs won't invest, and this was certainly our experience. And investors are doubly wary of web-email startups because of the 800lb gorilla that is Gmail.
Add to all this the fact that we had run a full year into savings, two of us had big mortgages, one a baby, a mounting EC2 bill, and the picture starts to look a lot different.
Even after all this I think it was still possible--but each additional day of fundraising makes things exponentially more difficult. And at some point we had to make a call of whether the time spent chasing after funds was worth the (less than stellar) runway it promised.
We had plenty of acquisition interest. Pretty much all of it was of the acqui-hire variety, the kind that Sparrow took and got universally panned for (I don't blame them, personally, I think they were in a tough position). These offers were from the usual suspects as well as other red-hot Valley startups.
In the end, each of us decided on a project that appealed to us on a personal level. We're all going on to different things--we're still friends and we still hang out (really! =). Ultimately, the financial motive didn't rule the day. I like to think we deserve some credit for that. But maybe you think that's cynical too, I don't know.
As we said in the blog post, we're not killing the dream. Rather it's going on the back burner for awhile. Perhaps the way Steve Jobs put the iPad back on the shelf to focus on the iPhone. Only to return to it years later, with the wisdom and maturity of the latter's success.
Or perhaps it will be reborn in the projects we're each pursuing on our own, in some small way.
Note: Techcrunch published a piece based on this article