The canaries in a coal mine

I’ve seen startups come and go over the years and I was particularly interested to see what happened to August Home today. The company originally tapped Yves Behar to make a better smart lock, one that would meld with the sensitivities of a certain kind of smart home stylist with the high-concept, high-tech design of the Nest thermostat. The products, while beautiful, were unusable in most situations that you’d want a smart lock. As Matt Burns noted, there’s a reason they were selling the locks in Best Buy and not Home Depot.

Why were they unusable? Because they essentially rethought the way locks would work. Take the deadbolt, for example. The August solution was to replace the outer lock and cylinder with their product, leaving in place the inner knob and all of the deadbolt hardware. It was the ultimate facade. This solution obviously reduced the cost and complexity but also required matching your current deadbolt to the new August actuator or buying a new deadbolt and throwing away the outside cylinder. Further, you were sunk if you wanted to put this thing onto new construction. Finally, unless you added an extra keypad, it was useless for homes with children.

While we’re throwing stones, it’s also interesting to note that the company’s latest product, a smart doorbell, could not be used in old construction. The doorbell was actually a three-by-three-inch box with a camera and button on it. This would never fit in the average home where the doorbell is a half-inch by three-inch rectangle.

In other words, the ideal August customer didn’t exist or instead existed solely in the company’s promotional photographs. They got acquired primarily for their potentially lucrative Wal-Mart contract.

If you watch startups long enough you can see interesting tells. Poor products launched haphazardly? The CEOs are focused on an acquisition or are almost out of money. Red hot hype cycle with loads of interest? Headed for a correction of Biblical proportions. Celebrity investors making the news? The company is sunk. Hot Dog costumes? You probably want to talk to your broker.

Quiet, methodical releases, year-after-year? Things are probably going OK.

In other words when you look at startups of any stripe – from social media apps to fintech to anything else – look at the products. Look at what they’re saying. Look at where they’re selling. I’ve met countless Fitbit investors who still see growth in the cards when the Venn diagram of folks who have a Fitbit has already eclipsed the circle of folks who need one. I’d wager there’s an acquisition in the future of any company that exhibits that sort of behavior. That Fitbit is still standing in a field of dead fitness bands is a testament to their previous dedication to methodical releases, year-after-year. How long that can last is anyone’s guess.

I’m not here to laugh over the corpse of August. I get no pleasure in seeing good ideas die. But it’s clear that with a little careful thought and a lot of attention you can see just where and when the next SV darling will skid off of Highway 1 and into the grass. With August it was obvious. With others – Theranos, for example – it was far less so. But the signs are there, if we heed them.