True stories of start-up life 3

Well, maybe the word is “depressing” more than true, or a phrase, “true and depressing”.

Lately, I’ve talked to four different people who had worked in educational technology start-ups that closed. All four of them were really smart, hard-working people who had the same problems:

  1. Getting enough people to know about their products, and
  2. Getting people to actually use their products

Now, that might seem like the most brain-dead obvious point ever – for companies to succeed they need to sell stuff. Venture capitalists like to talk about “the need to find product-market fit”, which is just another way of saying, “you need to make things people will buy”.

It’s not really that simple, though. If you were paying attention (and I know you were) the first problem is getting people to know you exist. It is NOT just one viral video or one famous person endorsing your product on TV once. Honestly, how many times have you seen something ONCE and run out and bought it?

There is absolutely zero truth to the saying:

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Tell me quick, who builds the best mousetraps? You have no idea, do you?

Most people don’t look past the first page on Google.

I wrote a blog post a little over a year ago and I believe it is even more true today … I pasted it below to save you the effort of clicking on a link. (Hey, we already established that you probably won’t click on the link for page 2 on Google, so I know what my odds are here.)

 I happened to be in Vermont on a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s factory because, hello, ice cream!

When our tour guide told the story about the company, there were lots of oohs from the audience about the romantic American dream story of the early years of two guys starting a business and turning it into a huge success.

Listening to it, I had two thoughts:

  1. None of the investors I meet would have funded these guys.
  2. Those early years sounded like they kind of sucked.

Oddly, this all made me feel better.

Ben and Jerry learned about ice cream from a correspondence course – no industry connections there. Then, they started an ice cream shop and TWO YEARS LATER they had – an ice cream shop.

Where is the traction? We want to see 10% month over month growth.

(Actually, at 7 Generation Games, we had 12% growth in users in April and I was pretty stoked. Just had to throw that in there.)

These guys had been around for two years and all they had to show for it was one lousy ice cream shop. What had they done in those two years but learn how to make better ice cream and get some people to know about them?

Then, they hopped into an old car and drove all over New England trying to get Mom and Pop store owners to try a sample of their ice cream – because you know they were not going to get into big supermarket chains.

So – driving around in a beat up car, staying at motels, talking all day to people who have never heard of you, well, that sounds like fun.


We’ve been doing something very, very similar for the past month, flying all over the country to meet with teachers, exhibit at educational events, demo for principals, for after-school programs.

I was home for about 3 days in April. Now, I’m leaving again.

According to the story,

All of the shopkeepers who tried their product loved it. They filled up their order books and an ice cream empire was born.

I doubt it.

Now, I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream as much as the next person – unless the next person is a hugely obese ice cream addict – but I suspect many of their conversations went more like this:

We have all of the ice cream we need.


This tastes good but we already have a six cases of Sluggo’s Ordinary Ice Cream and I don’t have any more freezer space.


Our customers like vanilla. Cherry Garcia? What kind of flavor is that?


I’m sorry, I’m really too busy  to talk with you but good luck with your whatever it is you’re selling.

Of course, they went on to sell a lot of Cherry Garcia and Phish Food over the years.

Their story seems to me a much truer version of how companies become successful than this myth of a startup that gets a pile of investor cash, shows massive growth and turns into a unicorn farting cupcakes.

More likely, there is a long period of working on your product. Then, a long period of slogging up and down roads, knocking on doors, trying to convince people you are more than ordinary (sounds like the story in Forgotten Trail).

I think this is what the path to success really looks like.

As we keep slogging onward to success, help a sister out here.

Okay, well, maybe not that third one, although it would show an impressive amount of support.

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3 thoughts on “True stories of start-up life

  • Mark MacNeil

    1. Would it be possible to create some kind of Liaison group that could go into schools to help strengthen your relationship with the students and teachers? I was thinking that you could have an afternoon where students rotate through different centers that support active healthy living. You could have math based centers and sport/judo type centers.
    2. Create high quality videos of said events. The Gracie/Jujitsu brothers are excellent at creating high energy videos selling their product… Sell the sense of community.
    3. Is it possible to become more aggressive selling in Canada? 10 provinces and 3 territories that tend to follow suit when it comes to education.