7 Startups I Never Started Up

If a startup starts in the forest but no one is around to be a user, does it really exist?

With Grapefruit getting ever-closer to launch, it got me thinking about all the things I tried to build but didn’t / couldn’t put in the work.

As I’ve said before, I do like a good project. Most of these potential “startups” are more like projects. Though one, at least, was a legit startup that did have more customers than I have eyebrows (but less than I have eyebrow hairs).

Anyway, I picked out 7 projects from my past that I thought tell an interesting story — some writing projects, some technical projects — all at different phases from barely anything to barely launched.

1. Life and Limes, Self-Improvement Blog, 2007

Since this is the one that got me thinking about this list, I’ll start here. Life and Limes. This is when I started down the self-improvement road. I was reading and thinking a lot about, well, life, and why mine sucked and how it could be better and I really liked limes.

Concept Design for Life and Limes

This site was live, but still in the “don’t tell anyone so it doesn’t look like a failure if you don’t keep it running“ phase. I wrote a ton of drafts, but only published maybe 5 or 6 posts. I recently went back through those drafts and some of them may show up here as completely new takes on the same ideas because, well, people change. 24-year-old me was quite the idiot and wrote like one and I wouldn’t wanna subject any other people to those words. I’m not a monster.

2. Affirmations, Self-Improvement App, 2015

Keeping with the mental health theme, this was gonna be a very simple app to manage affirmations, and show them to you based on certain triggers like time of day. I was thinking this could be a multi-platform service, maybe using smart mirrors or through SMS messages or at the very least phone notifications.

I don’t use affirmations myself, but I do believe in the power of keeping your eye on the prize.

I didn’t get much beyond a little research and a day of prototype building because my time was entirely somewhere else.

3. x, CMS, 2001

It’s 2001 and I’m trudging through business school while working on a secret project at night. (Though it was mostly secret because I didn’t really have anyone to tell.) I called it x to make it easy to cd into the directory and work on it. And also because the term CMS wasn’t yet in popular use. To me it was a “dynamic website maker thing.”

To put the timing in context: This was 2 years before WordPress was released. There were a couple small CMS projects out there, like Drupal, but there were no big market leaders.

I had all the basics in place for a CMS — pages, metadata, templates — and I knew it was a thing that was gonna be a thing. But I never kept it up. Imagine if I had found some business partners (potentials for which were all around me in school) and we had dropped out and built it into something. The world might be calling them DWMTs instead!

Right idea, right time, poor execution.

4. Purple, Blogging Platform, 2014

As our real startup was growing, I started thinking a lot about web performance. I wanted a simple testbed where I could experiment with performance on the same tech stack. So I created a blog platform. I called it Purple as a codename because I was really into colours as names.

Because it was based on so many of my own pre-written libs from other projects, it got pretty close to production-ready … and it was fast.

For fun, I added an “idea generator” so, when you started a new post, it already had a subject, a banner photo, a title and a summary as a writing prompt. Sometimes they made sense. Often they were complete nonsense. But it was still a fun idea to play with.

It’s a small spin on an established category, but probably needed more differentiation to be something.

5. Tastes Like Margin, Dev/Design Blog, 2011

This was gonna be a site of simple design tips for programmers. Like, “add padding, then add more, then add a little more.” Or, “only use one of these sets of colours.”

Basically it was a collection of all the practical tricks I learned to make things look better. (Not amazing, just better.)

It never launched, though I had plenty of content. I only list it here because the name (which my friend and/or brother came up with when I asked them to help me brainstorm) still makes me laugh.

6. Luftangus, Travel Blog, 2008-2009

Speaking of funny names, I always liked this one as well. It was actually live under a subdirectory of this domain for a long time. (Longer than it should have been!)

Tagline: where bordom meets the sky. This is the broken image version, I guess?

What I didn’t do here was turn it into a real travel blog. Travel blogs were legit things just starting to pop up at the time. They’re everywhere now, but anyone who’s been doing it for 10+ years probably has a well-established audience.

This was right in my heavy CouchSurfing days so I could have dropped everything, hit the road, and really dug into this world and turned Luftangus into such a success that I’d be sued by a German airline.

What a life that could have been! Unfortunately, after a couple of years I realized that I really (really) didn’t like to travel. Like, really. Still don’t.

And so it never became anything more than a microblog about using up Air Canada travel passes. Probably for the best.

7. Patroniz, Website Generator, 2012

We were so ahead on this one, it hurts!

Artificial Intelligence is more popular than maple syrup in Quebec right now but, in 2012, a partner and I tried to start a new kind of website generator that took your content and turned it into a website using, like, lots of computer thinking. No human needed. This was the next evolution of the CMS, in our heads.

Our was the only startup page you would have found that called you a bastard!

We didn’t think of our approach as AI though. AI just wasn’t a big thing then like it is now. Perhaps if we had waited a little bit and marketed it as an AI-powered website generator, and built it good, we’d have had been rolling in lambos by now. Who knows.

Good idea, bad timing, bad explanation, actual business that got destroyed by heaps of confusion.

Ideas that were only ideas

We can’t forget about the brilliant ideas that never made it past the idea phase:

It’s probably for the best that I never got into hardware.

Lessons Learned

Okay, so that was fun. But why dwindle on the things that never were?

Simple: commitment.

You know that saying that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago? Well, that goes for projects with uncertain success as well. Imagine where all those projects could be if I had run with one of them — any one of them — and kept at it for 5, 10, 15 years?

Someone smart said the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. Same goes for compound project effort!

I imagine any of these projects, had they had my full attention, could have turned into something pretty damn cool. I’m sure they’d have grown and mutated until they looked nothing like what I’ve explained here. But I abandoned them at V1 often because I lost interest in the first version. I kept looking for better, bigger, more “important” uses of my time. But the truth: they deserved better than me.

Those who’ve been successful with these ideas were those who could commit, keep showing up day after day, keep pushing and building and ignoring the doubt and the hard times and each new idea floating past like a temptress in a red dress.

I’m not in a place where I want to go full-in on a new company, but as I chip away, a little each day, bit by bit, at Grapefruit, I think of the things I could have done if I had the same persistence so many years ago.