Kill Early And Often – Keeping It Alive Is Not Good Enough

A lot of people are propagating the lean startup methodology, i.e. releasing a minimum viable product to the masses and keeping an iterative approach with not much overhead. But what most people forget to think about is: when is the right time to kill my startup if it doesn’t get enough traction? This post sheds light on the issue and gives possible approaches.

The fact is that most startups fail (Survey of 3200 startups: Why startups fail) and even more so, ideas never materialize. If you have had an idea in the past, worked on it, launched the project and maybe even got some traction you have my sincere congratulations. Now fast forward a couple of months or possibly years… Although you have slaved yourself, neglected your family and/or invested a great amount of money, there might be a time when you have to decide: am I going to kill it or stick with it?

The problem with keeping it alive

You might say that hosting costs are cheap, there is not much you need to do on a regular basis and hey, you have a couple of signups within a week.

Don't half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing

What you shouldn’t forget is the psychological element to it. Day by day you are reminded there is still this project you should do more about but you are simply not motivated. Not much progress is going to happen and the project is neither dead nor alive.

The problem with this state is that you are not helping anybody and mostly you are not helping yourself. You still have it at the back of your head and it is keeping you from pursuing new (ad)ventures. Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing (tweet this). You must get room to breathe. Make a decision!

The problem with killing it

Who knows if you have focused on the right areas in marketing, product vision, SEO, PR, design or content production!? Maybe you just need to tweak a couple of things and time is not ripe to shutdown the servers. How much time have you spent until this moment? Maybe you have missed the bigger picture, are stuck in demotivating little details and an outside look from somebody not as deeply involved could help you get back on track.

There are times when motivation is at a bottom and it decreases every time you read about startups that magically became popular within a week after launch. What you should never forget is that there has been a lot going on before it actually went public. You are just seeing a small fraction of it. Perseverance and constant iteration is key!

How others did it

KILL EARLY: Basecamp Breeze

Basecamp Breeze Shut DownBasecamp Breeze was launched by renowned 37signals earlier this year and a mere 4 months later they are killing the product as they “don’t see enough customer traction”. This is on a scale that most of us would probably be happy about but for all the needed team effort (maintenance, motivation, product vision, execution, support, …) it just isn’t good enough.

I think this is a good example of kill early and often, and, even more importantly they are handling the situation in a great way: an open statement without any bullshit, a full refund to current customers and a hint to alternative solutions on the market.


PerseverancePaul Hemetsberger, a Viennese guy I know from a previous company I worked for, has been bootstrapping his dictionary project in his spare time all the way ever since, and, after a couple of years he decided to make the jump to go fulltime. Even legal threats hadn’t held him back.

Today his language dictionary is generating over 7 million page impressions per day and providing him and the few employees financial freedom. He recently celebrated its 10th birthday.


musweetAfter great success with the politics analysis platform we launched a very similar concept for music artists. We thought it could thrive and initially everything seemed great. We got invited to present at Google’s developer day, got a couple of other showcase invitations but after an initial boost in traffic the site’s traction diminished and slowly died.

In order to stay true to our quality standards we would have needed a lot of editorial resources for keeping music profile data fresh and we would have had to host the whole crawling and webserver infrastructure. After 3 years we finally made the decision and killed it…and never regretted it.

There are numerous stories about successes and failures and I am sure you know many of them, but…

When is the right time to kill my startup?

Honestly, it depends and I think it is very hard to choose the right moment. Depending on the field your startup is in it may take one month to three years until you know whether it is time to kill or stick with it, or, your project is already dead at the start because the area you chose is just too complex and competitive (think Maps). I know companies and startups whose founders worked on them for years, poured their sweat in day by day, and, have pivoted numerous times (Remember the early flash video version of seesmic?) before it gained enough traction and finally became profitable. And this is a perfectly fine strategy.

On the other side I know people who have been pursuing a product idea only for a year then took it to the graveyard again. My take is that it is time to kill it when you are not satisfied with the results over a defined period of time (giving yourself a deadline helps!), you have tried a lot of strategies to get it off the ground, and, you don’t see any way to profits or exit. With an investor on board you will probably get a more obvious signal.

Bluntly said, it is time to kill a project when you are not putting anymore love into it (tweet this).

What stage are you currently at? How do you handle downfall and emotions? How often have you thought about killing it? Let us know in the comments.

[grey_box]This post appeared first at my product startup appstretto[/grey_box]

1 comment

  1. I was reading through all your cool little zingers on the Bizbits page and something I saw there also came to mind with this article. You posted a Bizbit about time cards only proving that your employees are liars. I’d take it even farther than that: the only thing that time cards prove is that you think the 40 hour workweek actually gets you more productivity. The smartest startups now are being created by people who know better. Real productivity is created by love, and–call me crazy if you want–the 40 hour workweek is a way to keep something on life support when there’s no more love to put in.

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