“I’m just doing my best… and you can blame it all on me. It’s all my fault.”
These somber words are spoken with a genuine humility one seldom hears in the hustling, grandstanding world of technology startups. Seesmic founder Loic Le Meur is speaking them to me over a crackling phone connection today as he explains why he had to let go of more than half his team from the cross-posting service — 18 staffers this week, which leaves him with just 15 team members left.
“We have tried a number of things, but they didn’t work the way we hoped they would work,” said the entrepreneur, referring to his company’s dizzying number of pivots and products. “After trying for a long time to get traction and preserve a team that was building them… we had to reduce the size of the team, which is the worst thing a CEO can do.”
I asked Le Meur a question he doubtless had to ask himself many times over the past few months: With a team that small and that loyal, how do you decide who has to go? Le Meur struggles to answer, and it’s evident that as difficult as the question is, the decision was much more so. “It’s a group process,” he begins. “There’s a connection to the traction of what people are working on. There is how the team feels about someone. It’s definitely not a ‘Loic’ decision.”
But Le Meur continues to stress that he, not his team members and not their work, are responsible for the pink slips. “We were doing our best,” he says. “The best I could do wasn’t very good; I give myself a D minus… And that’s life; that’s entrepreneurship. But when it reaches people’s jobs, that’s bad.”
Le Meur didn’t leave his laid-off staffers completely in the lurch, though. When he knew the layoffs would be coming, he immediately began contacting his friends at competing tech-startups to see if they had job openings.
“The minute we announced it, we had a friend of mine in the office offering them jobs,” Le Meur tells me. “It’s a software company that is hiring. We tried to find any solution we could for months to not to [lay anyone off], and I think it’s very sad, but at the same time, I believe that all of them will find a job very easily.”
As Le Meur and the core team of 15 remaining Seesmic employees batten down the hatches against near-term storms, the founder tells me he is pinning his hopes on Ping.fm. Seesmic acquired Ping.fm in early 2010, and Le Meur says it gets hundreds of thousands of unique users every day. “We decided to focus on that,” he tells me. “We released mobile apps called Seesmic Ping two weeks ago, and we’re focusing on this… It’s basically cross-posting, but done in a very good way.”
Seesmic was founded almost five years ago and has seen many product iterations since that time. It started as a video commenting system, then a Twitter client, then an everything client, then a CRM system, and now a cross-posting tool.
I finally ask Le Meur the ultimate question: Why keep pivoting? Why has he not given up yet? “I am a sailor. I just keep sailing,” he says.
“I don’t give up, that’s how I am. I always have faith in my team, and I keep going. Success is going from failure to failure until you reach success. There are many examples; one of them is Mark Pincus, who couldn’t raise money for Zynga… I think he’s probably laughing right now when he thinks about that.”
At the center of a culture that fetishizes occasional failure, Le Meur is dealing with the stark reality of what he sees as his own, very personal failure. He is unquestionably down as our call ends, but he is not out — not yet.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to accept failure as an option and look at it in an honest way, but you have to keep trying.”