Tech start-ups often enter the world with a bang—a few eye-popping rounds of financing, a fawning review in industry must-read TechCrunch, maybe making a splashy debut on ProductHunt. When they go bust, though, there is usually less of a clatter. They simply fade from the tech hive mind's memory, selling the company scraps as funding dries up.
But Caspar Wrede doesn't think we should so easily forget the startups of Silicon Valley yesteryear. So the Berlin-based product manager built a Twitter bot called Deathwatch that monitors the health of tech start-ups. Companies that haven't tweeted for 40 days are declared "unwell." Those that have been inactive for 180 days or more are officially pronounced dead.
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"You always catch the beginning of the wave, but rarely the tail end," Wrede told me via phone. "That’s one thing that motivated me to make something like this. It’s very hard to measure when companies die, but measuring when they stop tweeting is a fairly good metric. When a company stops tweeting it's usually an early sign that it’s in trouble."
Wrede maintains bots that monitor startups in the U.S., Germany, India and the U.K. that are listed in TechCrunch's start-up database Crunchbase and that have at least 300 followers on Twitter. Deathwatch speaks to the sheer volume of companies that start and fail each year—most of the thousands of start-ups Deathwatch monitors are ones that you have probably never heard of.
Recently, for example, Deathwatch tweeted that Floqq, a video-learning marketplace based in Madrid once featured in VentureBeat and TechCrunch, seemed to have shuttered. Signs point to yes: The company hasn't tweeted since April, hasn't updated its Android app since last March, and no longer exists on iTunes. Most of the founding team has changed their LinkedIn profiles to reflect new places of work. Indeed, it seems like Floqq was a flop. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)
Sometimes, of course, Wrede's bot gets it wrong. Recently it tweeted that Ripple Labs, a well-known bitcoin startup, had died when it had merely changed Twitter handles. When Deathwatch tweeted that gun.io, a hacker talent agency, had died, the company responded that it was just "listening."
With so much money pouring into tech start-ups, and the vast majority of them failing, the start-up death watch has become its own sort of macabre genre. There is also a subreddit, r/shutdown, devoted to companies that have floundered. Another website that launched this year, Autopsy, functions as a sort of tech world mausoleum. (Though Autopsy itself seems to have died. It hasn't posted since June.)
Wrede said he envisions Deathwatch as part art, part social service—a way to keep Silicon Valley's self-congratulating exuberance in check. Admittedly, Silicon Valley has started to come to terms with defeat, even launching FailCon in 2009, a conference where failed start-up founders can gather to discuss what went wrong.
Looking at DeathWatch's list of the dead, it's easy to feel a sense of start-up deja vu. Scroll past Foodily and Forkly and Sosh, for example, and you might find yourself wondering how many times are people are really going to start social networks centered around food. Perhaps the most interesting lesson to be taken from Deathwatch's roster of dead start-ups is how similar they are to new start-ups we see launching every day.