What didn’t work – Geomium

What I’m listening to while I type: B.R.M.C.

Ben Dowling is one of those bright, young entrepreneur geeks that Cameron gets super-excited about  [er, that doesn’t sound quite right. Ed]

At 28, he already has one web-tech launch behind him and is currently working on at least two others. That first web-tech project, Geomium, was the one I spoke to him about – after he replied to my tweet call to tell me he’d definitely worn the t-shirt!

tweetWhat I found especially interesting talking with him was that the reasons he gave for why he felt Geomium had, ultimately, failed were ones I recognised from my own experience. In particular, the need to stay focused on your original concept, especially when you’re at that point where funders are biting. Anyway, background first.

Geomium was a social app focused on location. Developed by Ben and co-founder Michael Ferguson out of six months of conversation, prototyping and brainstorming that started in the summer of 2010. 

Mike (left) and Ben. Picture - The Guardian

The two hadn’t worked together before Geomium but had a shared interest in location and in the excitement being generated in 2010 around what location could add to social networking. Ben said:

“Initially, the  idea me and Mike had was very social, just around people and what they’re up to. But we thought, if we just have people then we need the critical mass of people and how can we get people to use it until we have that critical mass? So it was always location based – chatting but with people nearby, location was critical.”

Remember that Summer 2010 was when location was still pretty new. Foursquare had launched  at SXSW the year before – as did the rival it beat, Gowalla. But these were then US-centric and, while there was plenty of work and excitment around location, the space in mid-2010 was still pretty open.

Ben and Mike raised £33k of Angel investment, enough for them to give up their day jobs and concentrate on launching Geomium (as an iPhone app and website) and to start looking for the next stage funding that would make the difference between go and stop.

The product was getting good press and interest from VCs. But by Dec 2010, the Angel cash that had kept them working on it fulltime on had pretty much run out:

“We needed to raise more money around December 2010, Jan 2011. We were slightly unsure what to do with it [Geomium] at that point so originally decided to take on other projects and keep pushing this forward, but it’s really difficult to do it when you’re not fulltime because you get distracted and it’s not a priority.”

It wasn’t just the lack of funds that was impacting on the project at this point, but the pressures that come with the pitching process itself, particularly how the desire to reflect the VCs’ interests can add to that loss of focus.

I remember my own, increasingly desperate, pitching phase and how that hunger to get a funder on board would affect what I thought about my product, and I began reflecting what I thought the VCs wanted. Ben said this had been “a huge problem” for them too:

“We were pitching end November through December [2010] and in January we were part of Seedcamp pitching to five VCs at once. Before that you’re pitching to about one a week and getting feedback from that and so you change the pitch, and then the next week you do it again and get feedback and change it again.

“Then the next week at Seedcamp you meet different teams and they all give different feedback but there was always a common thread. By the end of it you end up with their personal passion, one will say one thing and the other the opposite – although it’s not relevant to us they just say it to everyone.

“But afterwards you realise a side point, not their main point, is a common thread that they all made and that’s the important bit.”

The “important bit” in Geomium’s case was to stay focused:

“They [the Seedcamp VCs] said by bolting more and more onto the product we might think we were making it more compelling but we were actually confusing users.”

For Ben and Mike, the space Geomium was competing in had filled up since they started 12 months earlier. Their response to that had been to add more features to their product:

“The initial idea was to focus on people but then it was “how to we do more? I know, let’s add events and deals.” There were lots of different apps coming onto the market that offered each of those parts but we decided to add them all: “Let’s add this, let’s add this. Oh, someone else is doing that; let’s add that too.” So you end up doing a mediocre job of lots of things rather than focusing on one thing and being the best at that.”

The pitches failed. The guys didn’t raise the extra funds they needed to progress Geomium. Ben summarised what they felt had gone wrong:

“When we first started it was obvious it [location] was going to be an interesting area but 12 months later, when we were looking to raise money, the space had really filled up. It had become increasingly competitive and a lot of the investors wanted to see some serious traction. We had good traction but not at the levels they liked to see and the reasons for that are because we did too many things.”

Ben started working on other projects as lead developer. Some apps, including BusMapper, but  mostly working for another promising start-up – Lightbox, an Android photo app  (has $1.2m VC investment and is currently in Series A fundraising round). Mike returned to the US and is now working on another location-based project – appthegame, with new partners.

Geomium is still running as an events listing website at www.geomium.com (the events route being one the guys had started to focus on towards the end), but Ben “pulled the plug” on the original website and mobile app at the start of December 2011.

But, as Ben explains himself on his blog coderholic: “Failure isn’t anywhere near as bad as you think it might be. Even when everything goes wrong, it’s actually OK.” (Incidentally, this BusinessWeek feature makes the point that ‘failing is actually OK’ in multi-million-dollar businesses too).

So, if Ben was mentoring newbie start-ups at Seedcamp 2012, what would advice would he give them?

“I’d say focus on one thing and do that really well instead of doing too many things. I think it’s a really, really common thing startups get wrong is to think the one thing we’ve found isn’t good enough, so let’s add more stuff. But really you need to focus on the one thing.”