Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Startups Are All About Timing

When people talk about startups, they mostly talk about the idea. Somebody thought of something new, started something up, and then … boom. They’re on the cover of Wired.

But the truth is, startups are really all about timing. Lots of people have lots of ideas every day. Ideas aren’t the hard part, timing is. Good timing won’t guarantee success, of course, but you can’t succeed without it.

And not just market timing. In my experience, it’s the personal timing that makes all the difference.

Personal Timing

When I started Fray in 1996, it was not the first website about true stories. But the timing was right for me. I was young, underemployed, and had something to prove. I was ready to work for it, so it worked for me.

When Heather and I started JPG Magazine in 2004, the timing was right for the market (inexpensive DSLRs were new, people had high-res photos to share), but more importantly the timing was right for us. We were newly married and wanted to do a project together. Plus, we’d both established ourselves in the photoblogging community and wanted someplace to feature our talented friends.

But timing cuts both ways. When I started Pixish with a small team in 2008, the market wasn’t ready (crowdsourcing is still controversial today). But more importantly, I had just come out of a horrible startup experience, so I wasn’t up for another firestorm. And the team had other jobs they had to attend to, so when we got a pile of negative feedback, we just couldn’t deal. I still think we could have righted the ship, but none of us were in a place to make that happen. It was easier to just learn some lessons and move on.


So after all these experiences and more, I’ve become very attuned to the whispers of timing. That’s why I noticed, earlier this year, when three things happened at once.

  1. Devin Hayes needed a job. Devin and I worked together back in the JPG days, and I remembered him as the rare coder who’s talented, fast, and mellow. One of my greatest regrets was not being able to work with him longer.
  2. James Goode, who I’ve worked with on everything from MagCloud to Pixish to Fray, had some time available. James is my favorite designer because he’s talented as hell, but also flexible and friendly. In my experience, being able to talk about design is just as important as putting pixels on a screen.
  3. I was ready. Four years after my last startup blew up, I was finally ready to try again, and hopefully not make the same mistakes again (I’m looking forward to all-new mistakes).

The three of us with open time and ready to work? Good timing.

The List

Anyone who makes web stuff has a list. “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a website for XYZ?” I’ve been keeping a list like this since 1995. So I dusted it off and put each idea through its paces. What was the potential audience? What could we bring to each idea that felt like something new? And most importantly, which idea would excite all three of us?

I have a garden site in me, but the other guys aren’t into plants, and many established gardeners are still not online. Not time yet.

I really want to start a television community site. The time is soon – the industry is about to go through an enormous change. But soon is not now. Not time yet.

The Idea

One idea kept coming to the top. It has a huge potential userbase, it’s built to take advantage of our hyper-connected realtime world, it’ll be a good arena to test out some of my community/game design theories, and best of all, it’s fun. After years of trying to reinvent things (blogging, publishing, search), maybe it’s time to just do something that’ll make people smile.

I brought the idea to the guys and they were in, each adding their own spin to it. Then, more good timing. I went out for drinks with a friend who offered us an unsolicited bit of angel investment. The investment allowed me to pay the guys (paychecks make it real, even when they’re far smaller than they should be). My friend Chris Bishop, who served as the Illustration Editor for Fray and is a crazy talented artist, joined us to define the illustration style of the site.

Cue the montage. Me working in San Francisco, James in Sydney, Devin from a nomadic road trip, and Chris in DC. We collaborated in email, Basecamp, and chatrooms. Building building building. For months.

Present Tense

cute-fightWhich brings us to now. We’ve honed the idea, drafted a huge list of features we want, and then scaled that way back to a minimum viable product. (It’s amazing how complicated simple ideas can get when you start actually building them.)

We’re now this close to opening up the site to a limited first round of testers. If you’d like to be one, you’ll need to have a real live pet in your house, you’ll need to be in possession of a computer, a camera, and a sense of humor, and you’ll need to go to the site and sign up. We’ll let you know when we’re ready.

The site is called Cute-Fight. And what’s Cute-Fight? That’ll be the subject of another post soon. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. Hopefully, the timing will be right for you.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.