Shutting Down a Product

Essay published on January 14, 2013

Last week we shut down a product launched over 4 years ago called Feed My Inbox. It was the first real web app my co-founders and I created. It made money and had a lot of active subscribers, which begs the question of "why?" For me it comes down to three big reasons:

1. It wasn't big enough

Although I'm still a huge fan, RSS isn't exactly on the upswing as a technology. Feed My Inbox had a nice little niche, but it was and probably always would be finite. The economics made it impossible for us to justify putting a lot more time into making the product great. It could be a side project and bring in some extra income, but there's nothing exciting about that at all.

Like most entrepreneurs, I want to change the world and build things that touch a lot of people. There's absolutely no fun where there's not huge challenges, a lot of work to be done and the opportunity to impact a lot of people. Quite honestly, once we knew Feed My Inbox wouldn't present that kind of opportunity, we started working on something else.

2. Selling to consumers is hard

While selling to consumers is always hard, selling them a web-based service is harder. Most things on the web are free for them. They get free email, free photo sharing, free music streaming, why not free feed updates over email? All the RSS readers are free so it makes sense. We sold a $5/month service, yet to some you'd think we asked for a kidney.

I've come to realize that Feed My Inbox was a low-value utility. As long as customers got the information they wanted, execution wasn't that important. Even if we could execute 50x better than anyone else out there, Feed My Inbox didn't demonstrate enough value for people to justify paying for it every month.

While Feed My Inbox had nearly 200k active users, less than 2% were paying customers. We arguably could have made better efforts to upsell, but it wouldn't have been enough to sustain a 4-5% paying customer base, which is what we needed. I'm still a big believer in the Freemium business model, but in this particular case it didn't work.

3. Focus

Today I put everything I have into making Help Scout the best product it can possibly be, which means I don't have energy left over for Feed My Inbox. Trying to build a successful product is hard enough, so in our case it's critical to eliminate distractions and focus on what's most important.

I've seen a lot of businesses start with the intention of making multiple products, ours included. By every measure, it's incredibly tough to pull off. 37signals did it, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I can't think of another company that's made it work.

I've gotten distracted by a lot of little side projects over the years. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that you have to focus on being great at one thing at a time. Everything else is a distraction. With Feed My Inbox shut down, 100% of our time can now be spent on the right things.

Still, the experience of building a product and learning all that we did was priceless. Without Feed My Inbox, we would never have had the inspiration to build Help Scout, which makes the experience worthwhile in itself.

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