Elliott White is currently assistant vice president, capital markets at the Boston-based commercial real estate firm NAI Hunneman. As the founder and CEO of failed 2013 startup, Pulsity, a communications platform intended to connect restaurants and prospective patrons, White learned important lessons about building a business. He spoke with us recently about his experience.
What was your startup idea, and what expectations did you have?
White: It was a company called Pulsity, and the initial model was to aggregate and centralize data in the restaurant industry. It occurred to me that there is a lot of really interesting content that lives inside of restaurants that currently doesn't have a great outlet, whether it's what beer they have on tap or the daily specials or events. Several companies already help restaurants with this. There's Groupon, Yelp, Facebook — but restaurants have to manage all these different platforms and try to convey a clear message across them.
And as a user, you've got to check nine or 10 different sources for information, whether it's restaurant reviews or pictures or menus. Pulsity was intended to be a better way to simplify that exchange of information.
What were the business obstacles you faced with Pulsity?
White: I read somewhere that the problem with a startup is either the wrong team, the wrong market or the wrong product. I don't buy that it was the wrong market. I think that there's probably still a need today. I think you could argue that it was the wrong team mainly because I hadn't really made a run at a startup before. I don't know how to code and program. I tried to reverse engineer it, which works in theory but is much harder in practice.
There were also engineering challenges that went hand in hand with some of the product challenges. The question Pulsity users might have of "what should we do tonight?" is really quite abstract and very subjective. To solve that problem in a meaningful way was different for every user. I've spent a lot of time looking back trying to figure out what went wrong — the biggest thing is that it wasn't simple enough at the outset. Before I could figure out what was and what wasn't working, things went sideways.
What did you do once Pulsity started "going sideways"?
White: I think there probably weren't enough conversations about what we should do next. I was constantly pitching investors, and investors would give feedback: "I wish it looked like this or that." I'd think to myself, "Does that help the company?" At some point, you wear down after three years of chipping away and you finally say, "Maybe I've learned everything I'm supposed to learn, and maybe it's time to give it a rest."
How emotionally challenging was it to accept that your startup idea had failed?
White: [Laughs for a moment] There is nothing more challenging that I've been through in my entire life, and I've been through a lot. Anyone who has worked on a startup gets so attached not just to the idea of success but a belief in the product. It's almost impossible to separate the startup from the rest of your life. It's everything you think about, and you're constantly working on it.
It was really emotional, and I didn't make the decision to walk away in a single day. It sort of unfolds. It sucks because those around you can see that you're struggling, that it's not working. At some point, you're just honest with yourself. And then figuring out what to do next is like deciding to live a new life because you've been so attached to this thing for so long.
What lessons did you learn?
White: That you want to have a simple idea, at least to start. You can think about a complicated future, OK, but at the outset, it needs to be painfully simple so that you can test it and make sure that it's working.
I also think pitching investors teaches you a lot about how to get beat up and not take it personally. You need strong belief to sit down with a qualified investor and have them say everything about your idea is terrible. You learn not to take it personally and then refine your pitch. I work in investment sales now and I will talk to anybody about anything: You get really good at reading your audience. There is a lot that you learn from a failed startup, and I think you only realize this in retrospect.