From a well-informed and trusted source, I hear LightCrafts, the maker of LightZone photo editing software is shutting down. The website has already become unresponsive and inaccessible over the last few weeks, with customer inquiries arriving in my mailbox looking for answers from its second-to-last CEO.
I was the CEO of Light Crafts for a little while (in 2007), during which time I raised more money to elevate the product to a more differentiated level and more than doubled revenues in less than 6 months. I laid out a new product roadmap that included a new UI, style-based and touch-based editing, even before iPads were around.
I cannot really talk about what went wrong (I signed a severance agreement) except perhaps to say that the opinion between me and the founder (and still largest shareholder) of where to take LightZone diverged drastically. Mine included an aggressive leadership position in the photo editing market (ready for new devices), of which the first steps paid off already handsomely. We agreed to disagree, and I left.
I learned a bunch of lessons from this worth sharing:
- There is a minimal investment needed to create a viable product (of this highly technical nature), and trickle funding does not work in many scenarios (you can’t build solid R&D teams that way)
- A product is not a product when conversion rates (from prospect to customer) are less than 50%. Operational excellence can at best deliver temporal value with an immature product. Hence I did not deploy pre-mature marketing expenditures that would emphasize a hampered conversion instead of a differentiated roadmap.
- A smart scientist does not, by default, make a great engineer, not a great programmer, nor a great entrepreneur, nor a great salesman. Nor can you teach a scientist to think fundamentally differently. The emphasis and importance of an ultimate computing experience are difficult for them to comprehend.
- Can startups be fixed? When a startup company is stagnant or in trouble, a turnaround startup CEO needs to obtain enough power (voting, equity, or otherwise) to become empowered and yield the founders’ full buy-in. In many cases, the pain needs to be big enough for the founders to realize they are not as bright as they think (on the business side). A come to Jesus event needs to take place to affect real change.
- A board with a single (voting) investor is a tricky one, especially when that investor is a deep technologist, just like the founder. A balanced board or at least one board member with a business background would have helped balance the company.
LightZone was a great concept that I helped make a lot better in a short time, winning new awards and new business. And it saddens me but not surprises me that the company’s own direction after me leaving was proven wrong.
Technology is only innovation when it sells, and giving technologists money does not make them entrepreneurs.
The sad part is that I will miss LightZone (when it stops working), a product I still use almost every day to make my photographs look the way I envisioned them.
Hopefully, Apple can develop a viable alternative soon because the marketplace is highly fragmented with mediocre tools.