Startups

Dan Mall’s lessons from shutting down a startup? Match your energy with opportunity

The designer and his cofounders closed work on two-year-old Arcade after bootstrapping and demoing with clients: "It was a big market opportunity that we worked on like a side project."

Dan Mall.

(Courtesy photo)

When it’s starting to feel like you’re treading water to maintain your startup, it’s time to make a hard decision: push through, or cut and run?

Most founders know the feeling. The early days of a startup are hard, especially if you’re bootstrapping, and especially if the venture is a side project.

It was the case for Dan Mall, the Philly-based founder and director of design collaborative SuperFriendly. Over the last two years, he worked with cofounders Leslie Camacho and Mike Carbone on Arcade, a design tokens product for enterprise teams. The token would be a digital tool to keep all design aspects of a brand in one unified place and make them replicable across different platforms or uses.

It’s the product Mall said he wished he had while working with his clients for SuperFriendly.

“I’ve seen promises and whispers of it,” Mall said. “And I was sort of holding my breath waiting for one. Until one day, I thought, well — if nobody was going to get there, maybe it’ll be me.”

Until recently, the trio had developed a beta product and was working with a handful of clients. But on Sept. 2, Mall announced the team had decided to close the company.

It came down to a “lopsided” time commitments and ability to be involved, Mall said. While Camacho and Carbone were putting in a lot of work to the product, Mall found that he wasn’t able to give what he needed to: He was only able to devote about 10 or 20% of his time to Arcade. The three were always transparent with each other, and the conversation happened pretty clearly.

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“It’s tough, because I run SuperFriendly, and that’s why I have the vision for the product,” Mall said. “It would be different if we just needed a CEO, or COO, but you can’t outsource the vision.”

And as they were bootstrapping, the project was also getting expensive. It’s the second time Mall has started a venture as a side project, and that one — Superbooked, that would help you refer projects to others if you couldn’t take it on — followed a similar path.

Clockwise from top left: Julia Fernandez, Dan Mall, Leslie Camacho and Mike Carbone. (Courtesy image)

“It was a really hard to make the decision. For one — I really enjoy working with Mike and Leslie,” Mall said. “And the other part is, I still need this product. It’s still something I need for our clients. If we don’t make it, will anyone?”

The logistics involved were to close down the LLC they’d opened, stop accepting payments, close business bank accounts, and wind down the legal entity, as well as make sure their paperwork for taxes was in order. They’re keeping the website up for posterity and downgraded its hosting bills to free plans so the small number of folks using the app can continue using it without interruption, Mall said.

The biggest takeaway Mall has from this project is trying to match your effort with opportunity. There’s nothing wrong with a project that helps you make a little money, makes you happy and gives you some fulfillment. But he feels Arcade could be a million-dollar product for huge enterprise companies, and he could only give it part-time attention.

“It was a big market opportunity that we worked on like a side project,” Mall said. “This could generate millions from enterprises, and when your effort matches your opportunity, that’s a good thing. When they are mismatched, it makes it tough.”

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