Bad Startups

Since I arrived in Silicon Valley to start my freshman year of college, I’ve seen generations of startups grow from small teams with big ideas into billion-dollar behemoths creating large-scale change. Along the way, I’ve also seen startups on the opposite spectrum: fads, “first world problems” to the nth degree, and in some cases, dangerous incompetence.

Normally, I’d write a more nuanced view, point out the promising underlying ideas and how they went wrong, and acknowledge that a lot of industry behemoths today seemed like dumb ideas when they started.

Not feeling it for this one, though. Here are some of my favorite “bad startups”:

Munchery

  • I want to start off with one startup that honestly wasn’t that bad an idea, it just faced too many headwinds from competitors who better served more price-conscious consumers
  • The idea: gourmet meals from local chefs, made with fresh ingredients, and delivered right to your doorstep
  • Favorite “this is a bad idea” article: although the premise behind Munchery wasn’t bad, Munchery’s bankruptcy was a textbook case in rapid loss of goodwill. I remember a lot of people sharing a link to a Medium article written by Lenore Estrada, co-founder of 3 Babes Bakeshop in SF. In the article, Estrada highlights all the obligations Munchery had to the small business owners it purchased food from, as well as Munchery’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for major orders fulfilled since the busy Thanksgiving season (at least $50k was owed to 3 Babes Bakeshop and other owners she knew).

WhatsGoodly

  • The idea: Founded in the mid-2010s anonymous social chat app craze, WhatsGoodly’s entire premise seemed to be “what if we took YikYak, differentiate ourselves with Yes/No Q&A features for a predominantly frat-bro audience, and apply no content moderation whatsoever?”
  • Favorite “this is a bad idea” article: a scathing critique from the Daily Beast about some of WhatsGoodly’s more questionable questions posed

SMALT

  • The idea: it’s not just a $199 “smart” salt shaker with bluetooth-activated salt dispensing and pretty glowing lights; it’s an “interactive centerpiece” and conversation starter
  • Favorite “this is a bad idea” article: myrecipes.com wrote an article about SMALT, and it’s somehow both kind and absolutely devastating: “I didn’t pay $199 for this smart salt shaker-slash-Bluetooth speaker, Karen,” Mike insists, defending his compulsive internet purchase as he waves around his half-empty glass of Pinot Gris. “It was only $99, because I got in on the Indiegogo campaign early.”

Juicero

  • The idea: you buy an expensive machine + custom fruit pouches that are *specially squeezed* by said expensive machine into juice
  • Favorite “this is a bad idea” article: the famous Bloomberg exposé, where a 1 minute video made the idea of Juicero even worse than I previously thought; you can literally squeeze Juicero packs by hand better than the fancy (and did I mention expensive?) juice press

Washboard

  • The idea: A startup that sells quarters for 37 cents each — how could it possibly fail?
  • Favorite “this is a bad idea” article: a Vox piece pointing out the obvious: there are very few people in this world who would pay 37 cents for a regular quarter, even if you promised speedy delivery

And some Honorable mentions

  • Theranos — hubris at its finest. I heard some good gossip from people who knew the founder before she dropped out of school, but it’s not my place to share. Plus, the saga continues years after the startup shut down.
  • MoviePass — The business plan seemed to be based on a very flawed interpretation of the Planet Fitness business model. In the end, MoviePass was not only incredibly unprofitable from day 1, it was incredibly unprofitable on its last day, too.
  • Quibi — the common sentiment towards Quibi’s massive advertising campaign was less “wow, I suddenly want to use ‘Quibi’ as popular slang” and more “stop trying to make Quibi happen, it’s not going to happen” (to little surprise, Quibi shut down in December 2020)
  • Yo — despite only being able to message “Yo” to others, it was still somehow a step up from WhatsGoodly
  • Bodega — don’t name your startup after the mom-and-pop shops you’re threatening to put out of business (to the founders’ credit, they did change the name to Stockwell after public outcry, but the company still collapsed by H2 2020, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic)

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