Lessons learned from the failure of @sonar

Brett Martin, founder of @sonar, has written a gut-wrenching post about the lessons he learned from the failure of his startup.

First the background:

For those unfamiliar, Sonar Media Inc. was a mobile app created to help make the world a friendlier place. Our mobile app buzzed in your pocket when friends were near and ushered in a new wave of “Ambient Social Networking” companies. Downloaded by millions of people all over the world, Sonar was promoted by Apple and Google in 100+ countries, won numerous awards such as runner-up at TechCrunch Disrupt and Ad:Tech Best Mobile Startup, raised nearly $2,000,000 from prominent angels and VCs, and was featured on more than 300 publications including the New York Times, CNN, CNBC, TechCrunch, and TIME.

And yet, we failed.

Brett draws out a number of lessons. I’m going to highlight two, but if you have time I highly recommend reading the whole post. It’s beautifully written.

  1. Focus, especially focus on delivering value for your customers – you hear this all the time, but I’m highlighting it here because it’s hugely important. Focusing on areas other than delivering value for customers was the mistake that underpinned four of the eleven lessons that Brett lists.
  2. Postpone brand and agency intros until you’ve built your own audience – the only thing brands are interested in is accessing your audience. That’s NOT using their reach to help you build your business. This is a generalisation, but it’s true much more often than it’s not. This point generalises to distribution deals for just about any startup.

Finally – Sonar Media was born in an incubator. Forward Investment Partners is a high value add early stage investment company, not an incubator, but one of the ways we engage with entrepreneurs is to offer them space in our office and access to hands on operational help from our team, so there are similarities and Brett’s experience is relevant. He says:

the most detrimental aspect of the incubator … was … its facility as a crutch. As someone responsible for building and running a company that I ultimately didn’t control, it was far too easy to point a finger.

This is something we understand well and are at great pains to avoid. Helping startups at the earliest stages creates value for both the entrepreneur and the investor but it is critical that no dependence is created. Our model is to help, transfer capabilities, assist as the company hires it’s own team and then get out of the way.