Five Lessons for Consumer Tech Startups in Springpad Shutdown

5/28/14Follow @gthuang

“We fought the good fight. It’s pretty emotional.”

That’s Springpad co-founder Jeff Janer talking about shutting down his company after six years and almost $10 million in venture funding.

Charlestown, MA-based Springpad ran out of money while trying to raise a Series B round, Janer says. Its digital-organizer product, which had about 5 million users, will be discontinued on June 25. (The Verge first reported the shutdown, and the Boston Business Journal and others have since covered the news.)

Janer says he will spend the next month winding down customers and shutting off the lights. Then he’ll take some time off, and is thinking about starting a CEO peer group for tech or VC-backed companies. Springpad had 17 employees as of March.

Springpad co-founder Jeff Chow, who previously worked with Janer at Third Screen Media (acquired by AOL), is joining Google in Kendall Square, along with Springpad’s top four engineers: CTO Pete Aykroyd, head of engineering Chuck Garofalo, lead Android developer Kyle Lampert, and Web developer Regis Gaughan. They will work on the Google Play Newsstand app, which has some similarities with Springpad—it takes digital content and makes it presentable for sharing and consumption.

Janer declined to comment on rumors that his company had been in discussions with Google, or others, to be acquired.

Springpad brought on new CEO Jacqueline Hampton last August, as part of an effort to gain mainstream adoption. Before that, Janer and then Chow had served as chief executive. The company’s product had evolved from a digital filing cabinet to more of a personal organizer using a notebook format; the latest incarnation was an expert-guided content organizer on topics like cooking, travel, and parenting. Springpad was compared to bigger names like Evernote and Pinterest, but wasn’t able to get enough traction.

Xconomy has reported on Springpad quite a bit over the years, so it seems fitting to pull out some lessons from its demise. In that regard, Janer was forthcoming about what he and his team have learned.

The big lesson is not “don’t do a consumer business” in Boston, Janer says, but rather, “think long and hard about how it’s not the same as everything else.”

Janer breaks down his takeaways into five categories:

1. East Coast vs. West Coast

This is the common lament about building a consumer-tech company in Boston. With the area’s historical strengths in enterprise software and hardware, there aren’t as many local investors focused on consumer tech. And generally speaking, West Coast VCs are less likely to invest in a Boston company than one in their backyard, Janer says. “It’s more difficult here,” he admits.

2. Product-market fit

Everyone seems to harp on this as an important step, but it’s somewhat overblown. “I think we actually achieved product-market fit early on,” Janer says. “There was a need for people to store their stuff and sync it across multiple devices. But that does not a business make.” His takeaway: “We built a cool product, but we didn’t build a business.”

3. Revenue model

Do you build a user base and then worry about making money, or vice versa? “We went back and forth,” Janer says. “But unfortunately we didn’t grow fast enough to roll out an ad-support model.” He says Springpad thought about advertising as a revenue model from the start, and the company stayed away from putting up any pay walls so it could get the most users possible.

4. Business issues

It boiled down to using a “freemium” model versus advertising—and Springpad ran out of time getting either one to work. “I would say, think about building a business from the start,” Janer says. Still, Springpad might have ended up in the same place if it had gone freemium early but didn’t take off fast enough. (Even Evernote probably has to make money from enterprise customers to become a huge business, he says.)

5. Distribution and user acquisition

Springpad did a decent job getting free distribution through app stores, blogs, and media. But its brand partnerships “were too little, too late,” Janer says. And when it came time for that, he says, “the motivations and wants for the Peter Walshes of the world [subject-matter experts and influencers] are very different from what a brand wants. Should we have focused more on one or the other and just gone deeper? We should have gone sooner, is the main thing.”

Ultimately, a consumer-focused offering boils down to simplicity and a unified message about “what’s your unique selling proposition,” Janer says. “We were always different things to different people.” He suspects it would have worked better to “focus so you’re marketing vertically.”

That’s all easy to say in hindsight, of course. The bottom line: building a consumer-tech company is tough, and it’s pretty much impossible to predict which products will take off. Springpad gave it a good shot and reached a lot of people, which is about all you can ask. We’ll be watching to see what else might come from its experience.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Valerie

    Are you sad about Springpad? Still hurting after Bento, is this you? http://imgur.com/CNwOrCn

    We’re sorry to see Springpad go. Helping folks get organized is a noble cause!

    The team at Qollector would like to invite all the users of Springpad
    to give our free iPad app a try.

    We’ve designed Qollector for the professional. Curating everything is
    simple. See your items everywhere, share with anyone, and find it
    anytime. Design and catalog details of your recipes, travel logs,
    diary, antiques, projects, contacts, and more. Share your catalogs on
    the web. It’s easy to be organized with Qollector.

    http://qollector.com

  • Cole McEwan

    As an ex-springpad user, it’s sad to see them throwing in the towel. I’ve used both Springpad and Evernote over the years, but recently moved most of my content to Zimilate. The visual organization is really nice, and you can save the usual webpages/files/images/notes.

  • Domas Sabockis

    Time for Dragdis.com !

  • Michael

    Queue all the people peddling their “superior”, also-unheard-of product.

    • http://www.electronicalmonocle.com dave birney (monoelectron)

      i think most people have heard of pen and paper

      • fadecomic

        I think that pretty much sums it up. These digital notepad apps all seem to struggle because they get false starts. They’re neat the first time you try them, but they fall off because they don’t have the right-in-your-face presence of good old paper.

        • http://www.electronicalmonocle.com dave birney (monoelectron)

          yea youre right, even though i like using the likes of evernote and onenote to jot stuff down there is always that problem of struggle no matter how many other features they add to make up for it.
          although there is the new surface pro 3 and onenote. thats something that actually looks promising in terms of getting a good old fashioned paper experience back. you just click the top of the pen and the screen turns on and onenote opens a blank page that you can start writing on straight away. and they made screen really thin so it wouldnt seem like the nip is floating a few millimetres above where your writing. havnt tried it but it looks like a step in the right direction at least!

    • Roberta Moll

      peddling fast to http://www.centrallo.com

  • MJ

    They also didn’t really listen to users well. They were were all about flashy tricks and looking like Google/MS. Compare that to Evernote that has a great user community and a simpler but much more functional and stable sync system and UI. I don’t want to preach, but I think I saw this coming 2-3 years ago when they changed the UI without noticed and didn’t seem to care.

  • Bart van der Horst

    I don’t see the lesson actually. In my experience springpad was not a very clear app. It had a cluttered user interface, the reminder function was very strange. And the todo’s didn’t make much sense. The product just wasn’t finished, and it was certainly to slow.

  • Chris Coulson

    Well, I for one liked it a lot, and am sad to see it go.

  • vilaku

    This is a very informative interview/post mortem on Springpad demise. I took a shot on how users can deal with services like Springpad shutting down:

    http://www.vilaku.com/2014/06/21/all-good-things-must-come-to-an-end/

  • Beth

    I loved Springpad, and because I mostly use it on my iPad, didn’t know it was shutting down until too late. I wish they would have given their users the option of paying for it before shutting it down. I think many would have been happy to pay to keep it going, as long as it wasn’t an excessive amount.

    I really like the visual organisation of the notebooks in Springpad. I really hope someone else comes up with something similar. Now I just have to find a way to export my data from my iPad so I can port it elsewhere. Easier said than done!

  • Catron

    I loved springpad I used it daily pretty bummed that it shut down I haven’t found anything else up to par with it thus far.