The 5 Stages of a Consumer Web Startup

In my years covering technology, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of pitches related to the latest consumer Internet startup. Thanks to this I’ve been able to witness what amounts to be a near-familiar life cycle for these companies. Not every company hits every step, but most of these will be familiar to those of you in the Silicon Valley Social Media/Web 2.0-Something trenches.

IN THE BEGINNING

One day an entrepreneur is chatting with his friends, gets an idea, writes about the idea on his or her blog, and then starts coding. A few weeks or possibly days, a beta — increasingly a euphemism for a not-fully-thought-out-product — emerges.

THE LAUNCH

Then the buzz builds and the company opens up the beta far and wide. Maybe TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, WebWorkerDaily or WebWare write about the product. Either way, this is the first traffic spike and the entrepreneur rejoices. The VCs come calling. If they don’t, the angels will certainly do a fly-by.

But eight weeks later reality sets in. The traffic stops growing or — worse yet– dives. The VCs stop calling and blogs start posting Alexa charts that look like ski slopes or tabletops. But as an ever-optimistic entrepreneur it’s time to regroup, gather your programmers, toss back some Red Bull and…

LAUNCH A SOCIAL NETWORK WIDGET

If the user adoption press releases, the widget and subsequent coverage can’t get your site growing again, it’s time for the big guns...the open API. Now you’re a platform! The startup gets a fresh round of publicity, maybe more exposure to new users, and the founder rejoices again. This time the money men get serious because you have shown them you can survive the Silicon Valley jungle and you have a Facebook strategy.

12 MONTHS LATER

Maybe the media is getting too insistent with their questions about how this service is supposed to make money. Maybe the bills from Amazon Web Services are getting too high, or the VCs are getting impatient. The blogs are back to posting unflattering Alexa numbers. Compete data backs those charts up! So it’s time for advertising.

If the startup is well-funded or has a famous founder, the ad unit might be something novel like a widget, pre-roll voice ads on a mobile phone, or Beacon. Otherwise it’s generally based on banners and Google AdWords with promises of more to come.

THE END IS NEAR

But selling online advertising is hard. If Google, Yahoo, AOL or Microsoft haven’t stopped by with a buyout, it’s time to consider reality. You could always try your hand as an ad network or merge with a competitor, but more than likely it’s time to sell that domain name and user base on eBay or quietly shut your doors. Better luck next time.

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