Six Apart and Vox—How Promise Gets Squandered

Six Apart is shutting down its free blogging service, Vox, and as Mike points out this announcement is really about cleaning up for an upcoming merger with VideoEgg. With 250 million uniques worldwide spread across thousands of blogs and a growing ad business, Six Apart isn’t a failure. But, like Slide and like Digg, it hasn’t lived up to its promise either. And products like Vox are a big reason why: As blogging was getting more open and commenters more mean spirited, Vox was intended as a clean, well-lit place in the blogosphere. It had a great UI and some nice features like a “Question of the Day” to get reluctant new bloggers up-and-writing. But then it just sort of withered.

My takeaway from the shuttering wasn’t so much “Six Apart is cleaning up for a sale” (which they are and Six Apart Japan is next) but “Good God, Six Apart! What took you so long?”

Back in 2007 when Six Apart sold off LiveJournal and named Chris Alden CEO, the mantra was the company was finally going to focus. There’s a fine line between healthy diversification and doing too much to do anything well. Six Apart has always had an Intuit problem—they had several valuable properties but they didn’t necessarily add up to one big consumer Internet brand in the golden age of huge consumer Internet brands. They were essentially a software-as-a-service company for media with MovableType, a Web publishing tool with TypePad and a consumer Web 2.0 play for teens with LiveJournal and for adults with Vox. Six Apart had essentially made itself a company no one could acquire outright because it was doing so many different things.

Here’s a hint: If no one wants to buy you as is, maybe you shouldn’t have so many disparate, under-developed products as a stand alone company. Every senior manager at Six Apart I’ve talked to for the last three years has said this was the company’s biggest problem. And yet, we’re only now seeing a move to shut down flailing properties. It’s hard to say from the outside who is to blame, but Six Apart has clearly suffered from a lack of leadership and decisiveness.

I like Alden. He knows media, he’s a nice guy and he came into that job with a lot of goodwill and fanfare. But perhaps that’s too much of the problem—he focused more on publishers than readers and was too nice to make hard decisions faster. From what I hear things are turning ugly inside the company, with Alden blaming some of his senior team and much of that team turning on Alden. When (and I should say “if,” but it’s likely “when”) this deal with Video Egg is announced, they’ll be all smiles, there will be a great narrative about why the two make sense together and maybe they do. But none of that is what I hear is going on at Six Apart HQ right now.

It didn’t have to be this way. Six Apart was one of the earliest blogging tools and one of the first to have the cojones to charge for simplicity and ease of use. A lot of the look and feel of blogs was shaped by Six Apart founders Ben and Mena Trott. And Six Apart had one of the more powerful and intriguing boards with the uber angel Reid Hoffman, superstar and Creative Commons founder Joi Ito and August Capital’s scrappy David Hornik. Some of the smartest people around the Web clearly saw something great in Six Apart. And it had plenty of money—it raised more than $20 million from investors and millions more when it unloaded LiveJournal.

Welcome to the sadly wistful phase of Web 2.0. The big winners – Facebook, Twitter, Zynga and LinkedIn—have already been separated from the obvious losers—Friendster, Plurk, Friendfeed and a host of names we’ve already forgotten. Only now are we starting to get judgments on the companies in the middle. Ventures that succeeded in building real companies with sizable reach and significant revenues and outlasted a raft of competitors, but that nevertheless didn’t live up to their promise. The best will go the way of Slide, a nice exit that no one loses money on, and some make money on. Then there’s the situation Six Apart is in now– poised on an uncomfortable merger with another private company that’s not an “exit” for anybody and just means another four years of slogging to build something big.