March 8, 2019 was the last day I worked at Makr, the startup that I was a part of for years. It’s always a downer sticking around for a dying company’s last days, spending the last month or so shutting down our application piece by piece. This also marked the end of an era for me. Sure, I worked on Makr for six years, but if you follow the path I took getting to that point you’ll realize the startup’s origins go even further back.
So why wait two years to reminisce on this? There were three main reasons. First, I wasn’t writing frequently this time of the year last year, so I didn’t have a channel for expressing myself. Second, it should go without saying that last March was when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, so that took up most of my attention that month. But lastly, I harbored negative feelings about working at Makr and continued to do so until recently.
Why Makr Failed
If you ask anyone else why Makr failed to survive they would cite factors like product-to-market fit or lack of a marketing budget, and that’s probably an accurate assessment of what happened. However, as one of the team’s developers my number one concern was always whether we even had a product to deliver.
I don’t think anyone on the team understood how difficult our job was. Our product was a graphic design app for customizing printed and digital goods. There were many challenges that had to be explored such as how to render designs, how to store projects in our backend, guiding users toward quality designs, and everything related to physical fulfillment. The company prided itself in making great UI/UX but our product involved problems that went far beyond typical frontend development.
We took on challenges a company like Adobe would explore, and in order to succeed we needed resources on a comparable level. Instead, we were forced to do a lot with a small team. We were able to get away with this when we launched Makr for iOS, and our effective use of resources was part of why we were acquired. However, we began to run to issues when the “do more with less” approach clashed with fundamental limitations of our product.
When we were tasked with making a web version of Makr, we didn’t think we had the capability to do since we were an iOS-only shop at that time. So, our parent company had us hire a consulting firm to do it for us. The third party did a demo using an open source library and said they could wrap up the work in a couple of months. However, it took them double that time to get the product to a launchable state, and even then it didn’t have the same feature set the iOS app had.
The problem wasn’t so much that we overestimated the abilities of the offshore team - they were great to work with - we underestimated the problem we were trying to solve. It didn’t help that our parent company was a brick-and-mortar retailer on the decline so they were more focused on keeping costs down rather than on pursuing growth opportunities.
Affect On My Career
My role at Makr went into flux when we started working on a web version of the product. I continued to work on the iOS app while the rest of the team went full speed ahead with Makr on Web. Unfortunately, I couldn’t move the iOS app forward, only keep it alive.
The reason Makr for Web was made to begin with was that we thought being iOS-exclusive was barrier for users, and that by moving to Web we could open ourselves up to a much larger audience. We wanted Makr for Web to become our primary offering, so anything new would have to fit into our web strategy.
Makr for iOS and Makr for Web were destined to be two divergent products. There was no common graphics technology that worked on both native iOS and browsers so the new app was written completely from scratch. Even the backends for each product were different, a justifiable decision if you knew what was going on but one that baffled prospective employers nonetheless when they interviewed me years afterward.
The dynamic between the offshore engineers and me was always awkward. As far as they were concerned, they had to answer to our product manager, our solutions architect, and our parent company, but not me. I never knew if I could act as a manager as opposed to a client; I wanted to establish a process on the team and assign them to specific R&D projects but I didn’t have the authority to do so.
I eventually started working on Makr for Web, but my role was mostly limited to operations. I was tasked with putting out tech fires, but never allowed to put in the upfront work to prevent those issues from happening. Moreover, that relationship only went one way. I got things done on Web when the rest of the team failed, but nobody helped me with the iOS app.
That entire time I was only referred to as the iOS engineer of the team. Perhaps to ex-CEO Ellen it was a callback to the golden days of Makr, back when she had relative control of the company. But to me it was a sign that my role on the team had diminished. The iOS app was no longer viewed with much importance, and neither was I.
When Makr shut down my coworkers were confident that I would quickly pick up a new job. In reality, I ran into rejection over rejection when interviewers dug into Makr’s tech stack and my role developing the product suite. Sure, I made a good enough first impression to get into later rounds with most companies, but they always found something off when they looked at the details.
I was put in a lose-lose situation. On one hand I could say I was a lead engineer on the team, only to be blamed for the bad tech decisions the company made. Or I could say I didn’t have control of the decision, causing interviewers to wonder why I didn’t get promoted on the job or take initiative to change things.
Out of all of the companies I interviewed with that year, I only got an offer from one: my current employer.
Why I Stayed
The experience wasn’t entirely negative. It’s true that I grew pessimistic about Makr as a product, its business prospects, and even how the team was run. But I remained loyal to the people behind it.
Makr always gave me a purpose. First and foremost there was the issue of local pride. Places like the Bay Area and Seattle have been known for being huge tech hubs for decades and there weren’t that many tech companies in New York, especially outside the finance sector. The industry has grown a lot in the past decade and I’m proud to have played a part in it, however small it was.
Every day at Makr I felt like there was something I had to prove. Almost everyone on the team came from a humanities background, so building a tech startup was unfamiliar territory for us. Although I had a more traditional computer science background I wasn’t particularly good at it (especially during my undergrad) so I too had a chip on my shoulder going in. Even after we were acquired we still had to fight to get the attention of our parent company time after time.
Finally, I’m glad to have worked for a woman-founded and woman-led company. I had worked at Makr for so long I sometimes forget how much this is a rarity. It felt good being a part of something that defied social norms, and all I had to do was do my job.
Would I work for a startup again? Probably not.
My vision for Makr and the skillset I offered were incompatible with what the company needed. At my core I’m a pure-play programmer, whereas with a startup I had to make sure all aspects of the business ran smoothly. At my new job I can focus on my craft and impart my teammates with my expertise, which were things I couldn’t do at Makr.
Besides, the next time I venture off on my own it will be when I start Annual Saga, an entertainment franchise I’ve been planning for a long time. It will require me to move to a completely new industry and I’m going to need all the help I can get to make the jump. Plus, I need a stable job in the meantime, not just to pay for my living expenses but also to supply capital to this new endeavor. “Financial Independence, Retire Early” ain’t gonna cut it.
While I wouldn’t repeat the experience I had no regrets being at my previous job. To me Makr is synonymous with the 2010s, the values the decade stood for and everything I enjoyed about it. I hoped the company achieved a better outcome but I still cherish the memories of working with my team.