It's tempting to think of Silicon Valley as one big bubble right now. Isn't Snapchat overvalued?? Shouldn't Uber be minting money by now? What's the market like for secondhand hoverboards, d'ya think?

Even as dinner-party fodder, it's not very useful to just blindly speculate about the frothy ecosystem. Instead, let's look at the year's biggest startup failures--and some of the more notable boondoggles--to get a feel for what really went down in the startup world this year.

New York's spunky "innovation factory" shut its doors.
Quirky was a bright spot in startup land, even to cynics, who couldn't help loving the crowd-powered online platform for inventors. It was helping little guys--average Americans with darn good ideas, such as making a not-hideous air conditioner or a bendy surge protector. Plus, it wasn't making "cloud-based solutions" or the like; it was actually churning out real, tangible products you could hold and admire and buy at your local Home Depot. Investors loved it too: The likes of Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers invested $170 million in the startup. By early 2015, it was clear another round of cash from investors wasn't coming in in time to keep making payroll through the year. The founder, young Ben Kaufman, stepped down in the summer. And Quirky filed for bankruptcy protection in September. It was a huge flameout--one almost as massive as that of Fab.com (which raised $300 million). Though perhaps more disappointing.

A luxury-laden private-bus went zero to 60 ... to zero. In four months.
Leap Transit was heralded as the bus only San Francisco deserved. It had Wi-Fi and wood paneling and a cute logo in requisite inoffensive blue. It even served pressed juice. It ran a route similar to San Francisco's public transit, but, well, cost a rider three times as much. It launched in March. By July, the vehicles were selling at a bankruptcy auction.

Yeah. Guess that didn't work out.

A scandal rocked the darling of biotech.
Just when investors were starting to feel safe about plugging money into health and medicine startups, The Wall Street Journal uncovered some apparent inaccuracies in how medical-text wunderkind Theranos portrayed itself to the public. The company, founded by now-31-year-old Elizabeth Holmes, offers nearly 250 tests for everything from cholesterol levels to cancer--and can find results with a tiny amount of blood, and do so very quickly. And it has raised more than $400 million at a $9 billion valuation. What the Journal uncovered was that the company is actually only using its own technology for a tiny fraction of the tests it performs. And it may be exaggerating the efficacy of those tests.

Paid fantasy sports caught the attention of investigators.
You've seen the ads. They are everywhere sports are, and many places sports aren't. For this, you can "thank" the investors who threw huge bucks at the startup fantasy-sport sites DraftKings and FanDuel, on which players pay a fee to enter a pool for a piece of jackpots. The two young companies have raised an aggregate sum topping $730 million, and each has been valued at more than $1 billion. The problem: What they do is not clearly not gambling. (DraftKings' own CEO described the concept on Reddit as "almost identical to a casino ... specifically Poker.") Regulators are still figuring out how to deal, but New York's attorney general Eric Schneiderman ordered them to stop accepting wagers, after having determined they are operating illegally. The companies are seeking to prove they're legal, because they offer games of skill, not chance; all sides will eagerly watch how this plays out in court. 

An anonymous gossip app had a not-so-secret meltdown.
Secret, an app on which individuals could post anonymous tidbits--say, a rumor about a celebrity, or, as was the more likely case, a blind item about a Silicon Valley figure--was all the rage for tech blogs and, for a hot minute, venture capitalists. Founders David Byttow and Chrys Bader, two former Google employees, raised more than $33 million in 2014. It peaked after 10 months and shut down. Oh, but not before its founders took $6 million for themselves. Bill Maris, a prominent VC who's a managing partner at Google Ventures (an early Secret investor that opted out of the last huge funding round), said it was "like a bank heist." Perhaps this investor was referring to how founder David Byttow notoriously bought himself a red Ferrari--though he later sold it.  

The 1099 wars claimed a victim.
It's well known that employees have certain rights, and give up some freedoms when they collect a regular paycheck and benefits. Say, they may have to wear a uniform. Contractors do not have to do such things. Homejoy was found in court to be treating its 1099 workers like full timers. Rather than make a very costly change its business model, it shut down. It was a sad trombone--if not an outright alarm--for "Uber for X" startups everywhere.

Honorable mentions for totally ridiculous acts and nonlethal injections of stupidity go to ...

Superfish, for a terrible computing screwup.

WeWork, for financials that paint its expenses in only the sunniest light--and could have been used to mislead investors.


Good riddance, 2015.

 

Published on: Nov 24, 2015