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David Morin, Path founder, at the company's offices in San Francisco, Feb. 11, 2011. (Peter DaSilva/The New York Times) (PETER DASILVA/NYT)
David Morin, Path founder, at the company's offices in San Francisco, Feb. 11, 2011. (Peter DaSilva/The New York Times) (PETER DASILVA/NYT)

A fading Path looks to reinvent itself, again Add to ...

In 2012, Dave Morin was a tech industry celebrity.

His startup, Path, was nearing the top of the iTunes App Store charts. Britney Spears and other celebrities occasionally stopped by his company’s San Francisco office in a black-glassed business tower in the city’s South of Market neighborhood.

Outside the office, Morin, a slim 33-year-old who often wears a peacoat, even indoors, was spending his weekends skiing with his buddy and staunch Path evangelist, actor and part-time tech investor Ashton Kutcher. And Morin, a former Facebook executive, was profiled in Fortune magazine.

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The attention helped Path close a $30-million round of financing from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest venture firms and a few business titans, like Richard Branson. To date, the company has raised an estimated $77-million.

But once Spears left the building, the hard work of building a company began. And that’s where Morin still is – trying to build on that early promise. And it’s a promise that has changed many times over.

Path was originally supposed to be a site for sharing photos shot on a mobile device, a lot like Instagram. And then it was supposed to be an “all-in-one mobile journal.” (I’m still trying to understand what that description means.) Now Path is trying for the latest buzz concept – so-called ephemeral messaging, mobile messages that quickly disappear, as they do on Snapchat or Facebook’s new Slingshot service.

“We’ve tried a lot of things in this personal messaging realm; we’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Morin said in an interview in his office last week. “But we’ve done stuff right, too.” Path was a pioneer in early mobile app design, creating a beautiful user interface for smartphones long before Facebook and others.

In recent months, the company has been so low on the iTunes App charts that it isn’t even listed in the U.S. listings on AppAnnie, an app ranking site. Kutcher and Spears haven’t shared links from Path on Twitter in almost a year. And that startup buzziness is gone from the offices.

It’s easy to pick on Path because of all that earlier attention and because it hasn’t turned into the next Twitter or Facebook, or for that matter, the next Instagram or Snapchat.

And it is easier still to mock Morin because he had a habit of playing the full-of-himself tech executive stereotype: He once told Vanity Fair that to ensure that he never found himself with an uncharged phone, he had two, “One for day and one for the night. When the day phone runs out, the night phone takes over.”

But credit him with persistence and grit. If, perhaps, not originality.

In its latest pivot (one of those overused tech industry buzzwords), Path acquired a startup called TalkTo, which lets people send a text message to a store or restaurant. TalkTo is beloved by its users, so this could lead – maybe – to another Path transition, focusing more on consumer-to-business relationships rather than human ones.

“That fusion of information and commerce is where we’re most excited,” Morin said about the company’s next stage.

From the outside, it may seem that everyone who comes to San Francisco and Silicon Valley finds giant nuggets of gold. But the reality is most people aren’t going to make it. No matter how hard they try. No matter how many people they know. No matter how great their idea is.

Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, reported in a 2012 study that of venture-backed startups from 2004 to 2010, roughly 75 per cent failed. Of the 25 per cent that did succeed, only a smidgen succeeded at an enormous scale. Other recent studies about venture money estimate that as many as 90 per cent of tech startups fail.

“I think the rate of success is probably identical from 20 years ago as it is today,” said Narendra Rocherolle, an entrepreneur who has built and sold several startups over the last 20 years. “It might seem like people hit it big more frequently, but that’s simply not the case.”

Rocherolle noted that every few years a company like Facebook, eBay or Twitter comes along and strikes gold. Then, he said, there are 20 or 30 smaller startups that get acquired by those companies. The rest, including the competitors, wither away.

During the past few years, I have visited Path’s offices a half-dozen times.

Three years ago, Morin took me to a conference room in the back of the office to show me the company’s latest app. I remember looking at a large white wall in the room, seeing notes scribbled in marker that said things like “Growth” and “Sharing.” Charts were visible that slashed upward and showed the path Morin would take to the top of the tech world.

Last week, in the same conference room, in the same office, tens of millions of dollars – and a few layoffs – later, Morin explained to me the latest reinvention of the company, which now has 45 employees.

When I glanced over to the white wall, there were no charts pointing upward. Instead, there was a single word written in blue marker with a sharp underline: “Ephemeral.”

For most startups, that’s exactly right.

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