Monday, December 8, 2008


It's now been 5 months since Diffle folded, so I figured I'd write one last post to wrap up this blog. There seems to be a lot of curiosity about what happens to startup founders after their startups die, so perhaps this'll prove informative to people.

Job Hunt

I start work as a UI Software Engineer on Google's Search UI team next month. The resume effect mentioned in Paul Graham's essays seems to be true: my recruiter said that one factor in their acceptance was the experience of having run my own business, even if it did fail. (The others were heavy JavaScript experience and strong knowledge of theoretical CS fundamentals, which apparently is not a combination they get very often.) They thought it would make me a good candidate for leadership roles in the future, which I hope is true, though I'm sure there's plenty to learn on the engineering side before then.

It's not a panacea, though. I also applied to Twitter and didn't even get an interview. Skill fit still matters - being a startup founder is not automatically going to get you a job, though it usually helps. As does all the other common-sense jobhunting advice, like going through a referral, being nice to HR, dressing well for the interview, following up, and knowing your stuff.

It also matters what you did in the startup - at my last employer, I interviewed one candidate who had started his own company but outsourced all development to programmers in Russia. When I asked him what he'd learned from the startup, he said, "That you can't depend on outside programmers. Other people are unreliable." He didn't get the job.

Immediate Aftermath

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was flying when I closed down Diffle - running on pure adrenalin. Part of this was from working with the YC startup, and part was just that entrepreneurship tends to put you into this highly-focused, tunnel-vision state that feels just slighly unreal.

That all crashed down about a month later, which happened to be about a week and a half after I started the job hunt. I ended up getting rejected by FriendFeed, and then told the other companies that I wasn't quite ready to go back into the employee world and needed a few months to figure out what I really wanted to do next.

For anyone faced with winding down a company, I'd highly recommend taking a while off before making any big decisions, and not just the two and a half weeks that I'd initially tried. You're not thinking straight when your startup dies - your perspective may be a bit different in a few months, as might your preferences for what you want to do next.

The corollary to that is to wind up your startup before you're totally out of money, so that you have options for what to do next and don't have to bargain from a place of total weakness.

Anyway, I ended up developing a programming language for those couple of months. I'd actually started this about 3 weeks before Diffle, and then put it on hold for the startup. Whenever people asked me what I'd do if Diffle was a huge success and got bought for enough money to retire on, I said, "Invent a programming language or something." I figured that I still had a good amount of savings and didn't know what I wanted to do, so I might as well get that childhood dream out of the way and see how far I could take it.

As it turned out, I decided that this was better off as a part-time hobby project (remember "If your idea starts with 'we're building a platform to...', find a new idea"? It applies to programming languages as well.) I'm hoping to continue it, as a hobby project, though I don't know how much spare time I'll have at Google.

I also spent a lot of this time stripping off pieces of GameClay, cleaning them up, writing docs, and open-sourcing them. This often took longer than writing the initial code.

I started pursuing other opportunities around October. There was a YC startup that was interested in me as a first employee. A couple friends offered to refer me to big companies (Apple and eBay over the summer, and then Google and IBM in October). I thought I'd try a cold application to Twitter and Facebook (Twitter ignored me, and I nixed Facebook after realizing I'd probably have to code in PHP). And I had a whole bunch of other startup ideas.

I didn't decide what general direction I wanted to go until very late in the process - as in, last week or so. For a while, I thought about just telling the places I was applying to that I was off the market and doing another startup. Even as recently as this afternoon, literally minutes before formally accepting Google's offer, my mom was telling me about how she'd shared one of my startup ideas with a bunch of prospective customers (teachers - it was education-related) and half thought it was a terrible idea and half absolutely loved it. That's often the mark of a good idea, so I wondered if I was making the right choice.

But if I were to do another startup, I'd be stuck with it for the next 4-10 years, it'd have to be profitable within about 2 to avoid running out of money, and this is all in a very uncertain economic climate. And I have no cofounder, so I'd be doing everything myself until I could afford employees, and then I'd have to build a company culture. There's no fun in that - I might be able to pull it off and get rich, but it'd eat up all of my twenties, probably all my friends, and possibly all my sanity. Not worth it.

Some additional lessons

I keep thinking of other things I wish I'd said in the postmortem but didn't think of. Here're a couple that stick out, though I'm only going to devote a paragraph or so to each.

The big one: startups are out there, not in your head. You get ideas by engaging with the world around you. That can mean potential customers, or experts in the field, or lead users, or friends, or even potential investors. It's really tempting to hole yourself up in your room and code, but unless your idea is spot on (and almost no ideas are), this is a recipe for failure.

Pick a direction and go deep. I tried a couple other ideas after officially folding up, yet never really got into them. If you're like most entrepreneurs, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the number of possible things you could be doing. Ignore most of them, and concentrate only on what you can do better than anyone else.

It's also really important to be frugal. This is more apparent after failure than before: frugality gives you options, and you need them. If you're better positioned than we were, you might even be able to turn failure into victory given enough chances, and cash will give you chances.


I still hope that there's another startup in my future. It looks like it'll now be several years off in my future, though. In the meantime, I'm stoked for Google. I thought the people I met there seemed really cool, as does a lot of the stuff that comes out of there. Maybe I can even give the "intrapreneurship" thing a try.