The global web industry constantly slaps itself on the back for being jolly clever with all these new apps and services, and every time a new startup picks up a big dollop of VC money it’s splashed all over the likes of Techcrunch and Hacker News. But what doesn’t make news a lot of the time is what happens when the startup falls apart, either through lack of ‘traction’ or a basic cashflow problem.
The problem is acute when the startup doesn’t die completely (as in Deadpool dead), but instead continues to limp along, ignored by founders, investors and anyone else who used to be champions. A situation which is made exponentially worse when nobody inside the organization can be bothered to let users know what’s going on.
This is currently the situation with Groupspaces, a service which was founded in 2007 by two Oxford University college friends, Andy Young and David Langer, offering easy to manage online email lists and groups for Joe Public. The service was designed to be simple to use, and certainly it impressed enough people to grab $1.3 million in investment from some serious financial players fairly early on. By mid 2012 it boasted of having 3 million group memberships in over 100 countries.
But it appears that’s when the problems began, and now fast forwarding to January 2014, the company seems to be drifting like the Mary Celeste, bereft of crew and captain, while still raking in monthly subscription fees from poor unknowing users.
A key moment seems to have been when the last of the founders, Andy Young, jumped ship last April to join Stripe UK. With the kind of sang-froid that would make any unrepentant teenager blush, he proudly declared that the service would continue to run ‘nicely as a sustainable small business’, which basically appears to mean ‘I’m off Jack, last one out don’t forget to turn off the lights’.
The site currently hosts an indeterminate number of users, many of whom have been clamoring for months for some sort of customer support, pleas which have been completely ignored by whoever is helping to run this ‘sustainable small business’ in its London HQ. The phone number given on the site rings out, the address appears to be a post box type accommodation address, and there’s no sign of any personnel anywhere to help users solve their problem.
And the problem is acute. This email management service has started refusing to let users send emails, which indicates a fundamentally broken mail list system. But not a hint of a explanation has emerged from the company itself. As user Paul Christensen aptly laments on the above Techcrunch post about Young’s departure.
“So “putting it on auto-pilot” with no customer support and no development is fine as a sort of modus operandi for you guys is it?….There is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no-one working for Groupspaces now, yet someone is basically taking tens of thousands of pounds each month in the fees that are now being extracted from customers under false pretences…Frankly, I think this is criminal…”
To say that this kind of treatment is abhorrent is an understatement. Either you wrap something up and call it a day, or you sell, partner or sort out your issues so the user is not left in the lurch. Every time a startup does this to its customer base a whole constituency of online users is left with a bitter taste in the mouth, which will eventually result in people simply not trusting ANY online service which is not owned by a huge brand. A potential disaster for startups in the future.
A good part of the blame must also rest with Index Ventures and the rest of the investors in the company who, having decided there’s nothing worthwhile in a ‘small business’ of this type, have no doubt simply scrubbed all mention of it from their books and blithely moved on to hunt for more ‘scaleable’ fodder. It’s no wonder they call VCs vultures. Surely they should be at least partly instrumental in helping secure or close a business when its time has come?
Meanwhile the growing chorus of despair from the ignored (and yet still paying) Groupspaces userbase continues to grow, just as the automated response machine churns out the typical robot drivel.
“Thank you for contacting GroupSpaces!
Your message has been added to our Priority Support queue and we will try to respond as soon as possible.”
The whole affair is shoddy and a disgrace to all the parties concerned.