"You're Not Happy and Neither are We"--Lessons From Wahooly's Crash-And-Burn Launch

By Erin Griffith , written on February 10, 2012

From The News Desk

Last week, after around six months of toiling away on product, pimping it to bloggers, and engaging with his startup's 28,000 beta sign-ups, Wahooly co-founder Dana Severson clicked a button to transfer Wahooly's files from a development server to a launch-ready server. The process was supposed to take 24 hours, ending at the precise moment the countdown clock on Wahooly's site reached zero--launch time--and coinciding exactly with a TechCrunch story and a wide email blast.

The files didn't transfer in time. The 28,000 users who'd been primed for the moment launched a mini-revolt.  Finally, eight stressful hours later, the files were migrated and launch-ready -- and the volume at which new sign-ups poured in created an endless string of bugs, the worst of which prevented 6000 users from even registering at all.

The next several days were spent attempting to remedy the bugs, until, on February 5, Severson and team sent an apology email to Wahooly's users that began, "You're not happy, and neither are we."

Wahooly explained the glitches, blaming his push to hit a pre-determined start date, readiness be damned. "You deserve better, and that's what we're going to deliver." The startup put its launch on hold until a later, unspecified date.

Crashes, bugs, PR nightmares, and launch-backlash happen plenty in the startup world (Cuil anyone?), but for a hopeful entrepreneur who has poured months of blood sweat and tears into his baby, this kind of disaster right out of the gate is heartbreaking.

Wahooly is Severson's first startup. His lessons might be useful to anyone in a similar position, so I asked him to share what he learned from the rocky launch. (For an explainer on Wahooly's product, check out this story.)

The biggest mistake was obsessing over a fixed set start date. The January 31 launch was created as an internal goal, which was fine, but the problem occurred when Severson communicated it outwardly, creating expectations that the company didn't want to disappoint. The TechCrunch story was in the hopper, the email was set to go out, and the countdown clock was ticking away. Inviting all eyes for the moment of launch on an untested product is something Severson will not be trying again. "Deep down, we knew we should not have launched when we did," but the expectations were too high, he said.

The next mistake was cannonballing into the deep end instead of wading in gently. Interest in Wahooly's equity-for-influence product snowballed over the last few months, so the company's decision to open its launch to all 28,000 users at once completely overloaded its system. "We knew our server could handle the stress, but you can't test the stress on that or anything else until it happens," Severson said. The company wanted to launch with a simple product and iterate with increased functionality over time, but it was so unprepared for the demand that any hope of iteration was overridden by fixing basic functionality issues. Now, the plan is for a staggered launch (at an unnamed date) with rounds of 5000 users at a time. The launch will be fully cooked, too--all functionality will be in place. "It seems obvious looking back, but it's not when you have so much excitement and you're feeding off the excitement of the user base and you've been working on this for six month and all you want to do is get it launched," he said.

Other mistakes Severson highlighted are typical founder fears--obsession with convincing the internet of what you're doing and then stressing about detractors. "The worry part of the business is really debilitating," he said. "It seems like the world is collapsing every time you see something negative."

Lastly, as everyone knows, but not everyone executes, fix your mistakes. The company has been overly communicative about its mistakes and progress, something some users may find annoying but the loyal ones appreciate. Do Wahooly's users forgive the company for the messy open? "Yes, thankfully," Severson said. Feedback from the company's extremely forthcoming communications has been mostly positive, he said.

And hey, apology letters are hot! Wahooly did it. Curebit did it last week. Fitocracy did it Tuesday. And of course, Path, one of the hottest startups of the moment, did it. Pinterest had some user outrage this week, too but actually did not apologize (lesson being, once you hit 10 million users, apologies are for suckers?). If your startup is smaller than Pinterest and has anything to fess up to, now's the time to do it! Tell your users you're sorry, everyone's doing it.