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Fumbled First Impressions: Startups that Didn’t Stick the Landing

Thunderfoot Team

At its core, startup culture derives from an admirable goal: to solve problems. But that doesn’t mean every problem needs solving — or that it hasn’t been solved already.

At its best, startup culture invites us to reimagine how we order our daily lives on a fundamental level. At its worst, it’s cringe-worthy.

On the one hand, you have Venmo, a company that began with the goal of taking something complicated — splitting a check with friends — and making it easy (mission accomplished!). On the other, you have Theranos, a juggernaut once valued at $9 billion that doesn’t actually do anything (killer TED talks, though).

While some ideas are so good that they’re destined for success — and others are so bad that they’re doomed to failure — many startups rely on strategic messaging in order to make a positive first impression. After all, countless young companies attempt to disrupt existing industries by eliminating middlemen, consolidating supply chains, or reshaping the way we relate to products entirely. It takes effective marketing to stick the landing without incurring the wrath of established industry giants, not to mention convincing consumers that this change will benefit them — or that it’s necessary in the first place.

Leaving a good first impression can be harder than it looks. On top of months of careful planning prior to launch, startups need contingency plans in place that anticipate every possible reaction to their mission, branding, and long-term goals. Without a steady hand — and a healthy dose of perspective — new businesses may find themselves facing a hostile market.

Curious what a bumpy landing looks like? Check out these upstart offenders for a glimpse of what not to do.

1. Bodega

The neighborhood bodega is an institution. In major metropolitan areas, these mom-and-pop shops, often run by hard-working immigrant families, try to be everything to everyone. Need groceries? Bodega. Grabbing a bacon, egg, and cheese? Bodega. Going on a groggy Advil run? Bodega. You can understand the confusion (and criticism) then, when two ex-Googlers launched a startup called, well, Bodega.

Designed as one-stop shopping to rival its brick-and-mortar counterpart, Bodega arrived on the market with the goal of bringing “the relevant slice of a store right to where you live or work.” With passcode-enabled, Scandinavian-chic vending units, users could access a Bodega, make a purchase from a limited selection of essentials — surprise, there’s La Croix! — and pay with their smartphone.

While you can understand how an elegant reimagining of the vending machine would be a hit, the branding was way off. For instance, the founders positioned the startup’s name as an homage to classic corner stores, but their status as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs implied to many that they aimed to put mom-and-pop corner stores out of business. A formal apology came shortly thereafter, and with wiped social media accounts, it’s unclear where Bodega goes from here — if anywhere at all.

2. Lyft Shuttle

Lyft has proposed a bold, daring vision of the future with its Lyft Shuttle service. In this utopian wonderland, users can board a shuttle at designated pick-up points, exit at designated drop-off locations, split the cost of the ride with other passengers, and avoid rush hour congestion in the process. Do you want this world of tomorrow to be available today? You’re in luck — because this is a bus.

Lyft Shuttle, still in beta, is a prime example of Silicon Valley reverse engineering things that already exist. While no one’s arguing that city buses are luxurious, they get the job done. Plus, investment from local government and shared usage among urban residents regardless of socioeconomic status keeps costs down for everyone.

Ridesharing services are inherently disruptive, so it’s doubtful that Lyft will buckle under the criticism. That said, startups — or startups that have matured into larger businesses — should be mindful of the spaces that they’re looking to shake up. Without an added social perspective, they may provoke public anger or ridicule for attempting to innovate their way into a market that doesn’t want or need them.

3. Vitality Air

Vitality Air promises you “oxygen like you’ve never seen before.” When you’re done figuring out how to see oxygen, you can take some inspiration from “The Most Dangerous Game” and start hunting down whoever is buying bottled air for $20.

While air pollution is a serious problem in densely crowded cities throughout China and India — countries where Vitality Air is consistently doing business — it’s worth noting that their website lacks corroborating evidence that huffing Canadian air has any health benefits. Interviewed about the company’s claims, experts say that they cannot confirm that Vitality Air’s products actually improve your well-being (beyond the obvious placebo effect).

For startups venturing into the wellness market, overpromising is risky. It’s certainly tempting to position your product as a game changer, but if your claims rely on pseudoscience, you’re opening yourself up to legitimate criticism. Even though Vitality Air reported $230,000 in sales last year, public reaction has been more incredulous than genuinely interested. Whether or not that’s a sustainable business model is up in the air.