Startup Life – Knowing When To Go

An article just came out in Wired about a guy I worked for a few years ago. It was an interesting, if mixed, read. You can check it out here. It reminded me that sometimes you need to know when you are done with a situation and move on.

Back in 2000 (v1) I worked at a music focused startup called MCY MusicWorld. We had a handheld mp3 player in development and were building a website to sell music online (sound familiar?) using Fraunhofer’s DRM system. MCY fell apart for a number of reasons but I walked away with a pretty dismal view of the major labels. In Lala, I saw another reason to get involved in the intersection of music and the Internet.

To be blunt, I worked at Lala for two months. It was after the first month that I realized I didn’t want to work there anymore. The CTO, Anselm Baird-Smith, talked me into staying another month to try and figure out how to make it all work. There were two core reasons for me leaving. First, a lack of what I called a realistic world view of the major labels. Second, the realization that everyone considered Bill the marketing wing.

When I’d started talking to the crew there I asked how they expected to handle the big music labels. There was a quick discussion about how Warner was an investor and that was a big vote of confidence from the labels. My cynical streak thought maybe Warner had just rigged a deal where they could charge licensing fees no matter the outcome and control future licensing if Lala took off. After a couple of weeks I gave up believing that the executives really had a plan for dealing with the major labels.

Everyone at Lala seemed to think the media dangled off Bill’s every word. Most of the company were engineers. 20 some engineers in a large room churning out product and a tiny handful of folks handling the legal, PR, and business side of things. Having just spent a few months recovering from my time at Wikia I was, again, cynical. When you’ve just spent a year working with Jimmy Wales (cofounder of Wikipedia) and seen a well coordinated press plan execute with immediate results it makes everything else look small. In his defense, Bill got press. It wasn’t the end all and be all of press but he got it.

Adding all that up I realized that I had made a mistake in signing on there. The company was full of really bright people. There were a few engineers there that I’d hire in a heartbeat if I was building something that fit their skillset. As Geoff Ralston in the Wired article says “I wouldn’t bet against Bill” but you definitely need to know if you’re working towards the same thing.