Home Color, Now Down Two of Three Leaders, Looks Like A Lesson in Lean Startup Philosophy

Color, Now Down Two of Three Leaders, Looks Like A Lesson in Lean Startup Philosophy

Just three and a half months after the company launched to the public, proximity-based photo sharing mega-startup Color has lost a second of its three high-profile initial team members, Michael Arrington reported this morning. Arrington said DJ Patil, who was LinkedIn’s chief scientist until this Spring, has resigned. Co-founder Peter Pham, previously a leader at very successful startups Photobucket and Billshrink, left Color last month. That leaves co-founder Bill Nguyen, who sold music service Lala to Apple, as the last of the three rock stars that launched the year’s most ambitious startup with more than $40 million in high-profile venture capital.

The reasons why Color appears to be imploding can’t be known for sure, but the whole thing looks like a lesson in the Lean Startup philosophy. Perhaps best articulated by consultant and author Eric Ries, the Lean Startup philosophy says the last thing you want to do is raise a whole lot of money, build a product in secret, then spring it on a world that may not want what you’ve built at all.

Just after it launched, to widespread criticism because the user experience was so confusing and unfulfilling, we did an in-depth interview with CEO Bill Nguyen. He told us that Color sees itself as “much more of a research company and a data mining company than a photo sharing site.”

Indeed the technology does sound very, very interesting. But in order for the company’s technology to capture the data that it wants to analyze, it first has to capture users. Design community leader Kathy Sierra says that great user experience design helps users “kick more ass.” Unfortunately, the initial user experience with Color at launch was more likely to inspire frustration and confusion than triumph.

Lean Startup advocate Ries says that he had a similar experience with one of his startups, an avatar-based chat plug-in called IMVU. That company built a powerful technology that fell flat on its face as soon as real users were asked to install a plug-in.

Instead, Ries says, startups should co-create their products with their users or customers. Those IMVU users didn’t want to use a plug-in across existing IM networks, they were more comfortable with another new IM client, and they wanted to meet new people, not connect with old contacts in a new avatar-based system. Those were lessons learned through customer contact that lead to a dramatic reshaping of the product.

That didn’t look like something Color had done when it launched. Instead, it became a morass of ostentatious founder resumes, a huge coffer of funding, lots of hand waving about the technology behind the scenes and terrible reviews from users.

The product also suffered from one of the classic challenges of social networking: the cold start problem. Color was actually compelling and fun when you were using it in a place where a number of other people were, too. Once network effects were available, the offering was much stronger – but that’s a chicken and egg situation. Why be one of the first users when there was no one else around? That was a frustrating experience.

And now what have they got? A Hollywood launch in March and two of three leaders out the door by early July. A big pile of other peoples’ money and a bunch of technology that hasn’t found “product market fit,” as people say.

The Lean Startup philosophy isn’t the only way to do a startup, but its advocates argue that it’s a better way for many tech products to be built and brought to market. Unless evidence emerges that indicates otherwise, Color looks like it’s fast becoming the latest data point that Lean Startup advocates will be pointing to as an example of what not to do.

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