A new startup lifecycle

I. The philosophy of Posthaven

Posthaven is pretty awesome. From their pledge section:

We’ll never get acquired.
[...] We’ll never raise money.
[...] Posthaven is a long-term project that aims to create the world’s simplest, most usable, most long-lasting blogging platform.

Posthaven has been around for a while and I would always appreciate its simplicity when coming across a blog built with it—it’s not a very popular blogging platform so that wouldn’t be too often.

In the quote above, not getting acquired and not raising money are presented as arguments for inspiring confidence. Confidence, in that this project can indeed last for a long time and remain sustainable.

Posthaven hadn’t changed its landing page for many years—until a few months ago, that is. When I would visit their website, I would question whether they are still committed to the project or they have given up. This latest renewal of their online presence made me stop worrying though. They certainly haven’t given up.

I never knew who was behind it but this time I read its story. Two SV founders had made a blogging startup which was sold to Twitter in 2012. Twitter shut it down after acquiring it and this made them sad. They, then, decided to do it again only this time: no VC money, no big teams, no acquisitions; just a product with paying customers, not destined to capture the market or make a lot of money.

If they don’t have to own the universe, they can just be a red ocean shop which achieves long term sustainability with significantly less effort.

II. The reason startups get acquired

I always hate it when good companies get sold. GitHub, Bandcamp, Keybase, Postmark, Figma, SwiftKey, even Zenly; the list is endless. The story needs no repetition but I will: they either get shut down and/or absorbed.

Everybody celebrates acquisitions. The founders and early employees make a ton of money and the acquirer becomes bigger and better and more profitable. In other words, more centralisation.

What’s the point of alternative non-big-tech products and companies when eventually their success is a big-tech company acquiring them? Is the point founders becoming rich? Is the point independent innovation because big-tech corporations are slow to prototype and/or iterate?

Maybe there is no specific point. Only that people get tired of running companies. Selling is a way out. One that will make you rich and your future life more comfortable. One that will also validate your work in the industry and in society. You were bought; you were definitely doing something important. This is not only about money. It's also about reputation; and impact; and ego.

III. Sympathy for Posthaven’s founders

I’ve written about this issue before but I hadn’t seriously considered solutions until now.

Say, we build an internet product and we keep it online for 10, 15, even 20 years. But eventually we get tired. Even if not, we die. That’s when all bets are off for real. Our internet product either gets sold or just dies.

Maintaining an internet product is hard. People who do it need to be pretty well motivated. The people who made it usually are. The people who use it might also be.

Just like the Posthaven founders, I have also made a blogging platform, Just like them, I also do not want to sell it or make tons of money off it. Its whole point is to provide a quiet place for people who want to explore saying something in this incredibly loud internet where nothing is heard. Everybody shouts; let it be us who try to whisper instead.

But maybe after 20 years I get tired. Maybe at some point I don’t want to have to think about maintaining mataroa any more. What do I do? Some people really like mataroa and, in a way, depend on it. I’d rather not let them down. Everybody knows the feeling of companies shutting down people’s favourite products. I don’t want to be someone who causes this.

Selling would imply finding someone who believes in the philosophy behind it. But I seriously doubt people interested in buying internet products are people who care about a philosophy of a product. They most likely buy because they believe they can increase its profit and/or possibly flip it.

I spent many months building mataroa. Its current MRR is $60, which means I would need multiple decades to break even. It also means that it would be extremely cheap, if on sale. Had it been 10x or 20x more successful though, we might have had some interesting purchasing scenarios to discuss.

Whatever the case, the question we want to answer remains: what is an alternative solution to businesses outgrowing their founders?

IV. Suggesting alternative futures for startups

If and when I become tired of running mataroa, I’m thinking to execute the following plan.

1. Gather interest from people wanting to run and maintain the mataroa platform.

People interested write a single text that explains their motivation and capability. All texts get published.

2a. If nobody is interested, that’s the end. Users are given a year or two to migrate and we shut down everything after.

2b. If people are interested, we, all together (myself, the mataroa users, and the people interested), discuss and hopefully reach consensus as to who is the best person (or people)—among those interested—to become the future owners and maintainer(s) of mataroa.

If we can’t reach consensus we vote. If there is a clear winner, so be it. If there isn’t, we fork. 2 or 3 new versions of mataroa appear and users choose to migrate to their preferred server.

The most interesting part of this plan though is that the new maintainers and owners of mataroa will not buy mataroa from me. I will gift it to them. The code is open source but the gift also includes the existing server instance, domain name, and all users and their paying subscriptions.

The goal, here, is to shift the current social imaginary from one kind of transaction to another.

The transaction I want to move away from is: we exchange ownership and control of a product and platform with a lump sum of money.

The transaction I want to arrive at is: one promises to treat something with respect to its philosophy and they receive in return control and ownership of this product and platform.

V. Conclusion

Maybe you think that’s mad and I don’t blame you.

I conclude with the following. Posthaven, the blogging platform who goes against all SV ideals was not founded by SV outsiders. One of its founders is Garry Tan, the current CEO and president of Y Combinator, a company who has been instrumental in developing the SV model of entrepreneurship. It is him and Brett Gibson—another VC—who chose to create Posthaven with the pledge of no VC money and no acquisitions.

They choose to run a business that is so boring and non-VC-oriented when their whole life is—at present—about the VC model, one of high growth, market capture, and exits.

We could say they are—in addition to the VC model—interested in something else. An alternative way of startup life. One which maybe promotes values that are in conflict with the VC model.

But how does this alternative way work? Can we find out how to have internet startups that outlive their founders, while at the same time they do not turn into profit maximising machines?

This is a need for space for otherwise. I think that’s quite interesting and I think it’s a glimpse into the future—rather than the past. A glimpse into a world beyond capital.


PS. This the Posthaven website since they launched, in 2013, until the refresh in 2022:


Posthaven today: