The Trough of Sorrow

Weekly Visits to Cost2Drive (past 18 months)

Trend-line Turns Vertical on Cost2Drive.  Are We There Yet?

Over the past few weeks something remarkable has been happening with visits to Cost2Drive.com, our popular fuel cost calculator website.  They’ve begun growing at an accelerating pace leading us to wonder if we’ve broken through some type of barrier, emerging from the infamous ‘trough of sorrow’.

Paul Graham, the essayist and hugely successful founder of Y Combinator, has a  chart that he uses to depict the process of a startup.  The process, which some refer to as the startup curve, defines the typical phases of a startup.

Paul Graham: The Process of a Startup

According to Paul a startup goes through a number of phases, beginning with the novelty phase where there is a huge spike of visits generated via a great deal of press attention and by being the ‘newest cool thing’ on the market.  This phase is fleeting, however, and quickly descends into a lengthy period of despair that he calls the trough of sorrow.  If you’re lucky enough to emerge from the trough of sorrow and survive the inevitable crash of ineptitude eventually you’ll find your way to the promised land.

I first heard of this startup curve from Brian Chesky, the CEO and cofounder of Airbnb,  a Y Combinator company now valued at over $1 billion.  As I listened to Brian share his own version of Airbnb’s journey from early success to near death to eventual funding, I was immediately struck by the similarities with C2G.

When we first launched Cost2Drive.com back in the fall of 2008 we went through the novelty spike Paul depicts in his chart.  Hundreds of bloggers from around the globe were blogging about us and we ended up with over 170,000 visits in our first month.

Blog post on launch of Cost2Drive.com (I have no idea what it says)

There were thrills and high fives and an abundance of enthusiasm as we watched our daily visits go from 50 per day to 25,000 almost overnight and at one point my engineer cofounder determined we were getting hit 167 times per second!

Blog post on launch of Cost2Drive.com

And then it just evaporated.

Had we known this was the typical process for a startup, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so painful, and in reality I’ll bet less than 1% of all startups actually get the type of traction we saw at launch and I wouldn’t give it back for the world.  But seeing it all disappear was like getting sucker punched in the stomach, and thus we descended into the trough of sorrow.

Blog post on launch Cost2Drive.com

An interesting point about Paul’s chart is that the trough of sorrow is actually the longest phase.  In fact it conveys that the majority of a startup’s life is spent wallowing in the trough, suffering through wiggles of false hope and the crash of ineptitude (yes, we had our version of this as well).

For us the trough has been a long one, and its not yet clear if we’ve emerged or if this is just one of those diabolical wiggles of false hope.  But even if it is it’s still tremendous growth and for a startup growth is the essence of  survival.

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