The Tech World Obsession With Scalability Killed My Passion Project
How switching to a co-op model could have saved a content marketer's startup music business.
From 2014 to 2018, I ran a music discovery service. At our peak, 45 curators sent hand-picked songs based on listener preferences to over 7,000 inboxes. We were the anti-algorithm.
When Spotify launched "Discover Weekly" about eight months into our endeavor, I had something to prove. I was steadfast in the idea that I could scale a bunch of volunteer humans from around the world with varying tastes to curate songs for strangers, who also had a diverse range of tastes.
The questions soon became: Why scale it?
I worked as a content marketer for a tech startup in the heyday of content marketing. I was in my mid-20s and had fully leaned into the “anxious New Yorker with something to prove” identity. I came up with the idea for the service on a run. Fueled by said anxiety, I stayed up all night and made a Squarespace website, bought the domain and texted it to a couple of friends. They both loved it, so I tweeted it.
By the time I got to work in the morning, my little website, adorned with stock photos, had received hundreds of subscriber submissions. It got shared around Twitter and found its way on a website called Product Hunt, which gave it some traction. Product Hunt was (and is) a place for people to discover and talk about new software products. I believe the vibe has changed, but at the time, it felt like a real community.
I Built a Community and Let Others Help
After that, friends and strangers began reaching out to help. I was overwhelmed by their interest and kindness. I did everything at first. I spent long nights and weekends grouping people together based on the bands and songs they liked, then curating songs for them and scheduling emails. It was fun and not at all sustainable. Delegation was a foreign concept to me. It seemed like I lacked trust, but I simply wasn’t confident enough in what I was doing to explain it to someone else. I didn’t know what I was doing.
My employer started to dislike this passion project of mine. My work didn’t diminish in quality and I still worked way too hard for my entry-level salary as a 1099 contractor with zero equity and little benefits. But it was clear I was far more passionate about my side project, and my boss didn’t trust that I could manage both.
I finally let a friend help, and then more friends, and then strangers. Eventually, we were a global community of 45 people, who became pretty tight with each other and our subscribers. Those of us in New York met up often for drinks and shows and we had a Facebook group for everyone to converse. The part that felt most special was how many curators developed a relationship with their subscribers. They’d swap songs back and forth. Or sometimes they’d discuss a specific artist, album, concert, what have you. Some curators shared poems inspired by their daily songs in the emails; others shared historical context; some simply shared why they liked it. It was a beautiful social experiment.
I wasn’t ignoring the beauty, but I was wrapped up in startup-land. I applied to startup accelerators, looked at tech-focused grants and networked (ugh) in hopes of meeting a backer. No matter how many times I was rejected, I still felt like there was something there. I could “scale this thing.”
Startup Culture Had Influenced My Fundraising Decisions
I now know that there’s a big difference between scalable and sustainable. This was something I overlooked because I was immersed in startup culture where hollow terms like “hockey stick growth” and “product-market fit” serve as rallying cries.
To crowdfund, I hate to admit that I chose Kickstarter because I wanted the badge. We’d have to raise our entire goal’s amount to keep any of the money pledged, but I cared about the Kickstarter brand name. Although $14,300 was pledged by 371 folks, we didn’t reach our $25,000 goal. We captured $7,000 on an Indiegogo campaign, but after taxes and fees, it didn’t get us very far.
Until writing this, I thought my failure was either in asking for too much money or not being transparent enough about our goal. I had plans to quit my job and wanted enough cash to pay a developer and to support me working on it full-time for a few months. I didn’t want to publicly admit that to myself or my employer at the time, so I focused on the tech in the campaign.
Today, I can painfully see that we probably wouldn’t have raised the money even if I was transparent. The $25,000 wouldn’t have gotten us much further, and I think our audience knew that at the time. When the crowdfunding didn’t work and curators started losing steam, I tried everything: partnerships, sponsored newsletters, booking shows. I eventually let it fizzle.
The people who loved the service and wanted it to survive didn’t want a tote bag. They wanted to be involved.
My Business Should Have Cultivated a Long-Term Community
Reflecting on this story now, a co-op model feels like a blatantly clear fit—at least an option worth exploring. We likely would have shed many of our 7,000-plus subscribers, then grown a little slower. We would have embraced our small group and made decisions accordingly. Rather than scale, we would’ve been driven by longevity, quality and maybe even fun.
A cooperative business, or co-op, is owned by its members who run it jointly and share profits or other benefits. A friend who runs his personal finance company as a co-op describes their business as “operated and owned equally by the people that work here.” You’ve probably seen or shopped at a food co-op. They’re open to everyone and invested members decide what goes on the shelves, how they interact with the community and the future of the organization.
I find physical co-ops like grocery stores, breweries and music venues easiest to wrap my head around, but I’ve also seen co-ops for music platforms, music writers, staffing agencies, record label groups and radio stations. Multiple designers and developers helped me on the tech side. One friend, in particular, built a beautiful system for us and spent countless hours with me at coffee shops and bars working through all of our challenges. All of the code he wrote was open-source. All because he loved the project. The writing was on the wall.
Everything about this project screamed member-owned. I just didn’t see it. Longevity and community betterment wasn’t as sexy as fast profits and TechCrunch articles, I guess. Now, I can envision members at curator, listener and staff levels. I’m not entirely sure how much time people would put in, what their benefits would be and what the logistics would look like. Today, there are co-op accelerators and experts to help with those sorts of things.
I can’t let myself become too regretful. I met some of my closest friends through that community and it gave me the confidence to start things. I will always wonder if adopting a co-op model could have changed things. Maybe it would have helped me let go of control and take a more democratic approach. Free from trying to fit the startup mold, maybe I could have held onto the project’s essence and let it be what it was: a small, beautiful community of music-lovers sharing art, insights and ideas.