How a Startup Went from Hype to Clusterfuck

Before Kno, an education startup, was sold for chump change yesterday, it was on its way to the top. Don't take my word for it: just look at all the "smart" "tech" "experts" who poured $100 million and thousands of fawning words into the turkey.

In 2010, Michael Arrington, who hadn't yet been pushed off his big golden rock of influence, had glowing things to say about Kno, a huge, unwieldy dual-screened tablet... for kids:

Marc Andreessen is normally enthusiastic about the startups he's invested in. Still, when I spoke to him last week about Kno, he surprised me by saying it will be "the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made." And he's backing up that claim with a new investment.

Arrington concludes with trademark journalistic skepticism:

Will it all work? It's probably best not to bet against this founding team. Rashid also cofounded Chegg, which rents textbooks to students. No one thought the idea would work, but the company is absolutely killing it right now.

That sentiment, of totally killin' it and crushin' it beyond measure, spanned the next three years on TechCrunch, which covered Kno's classroom tablet with adoration:

The impressive technical specs had me doubting whether this device would ever actually see the light of day, or just languish in development hell until the funding ran out. They've defied my expectations, however, and are actually beginning to ship to their first pre-order customers.

At the start of 2011, it was nominated for a TechCrunch "Crunchie" award as "Best New Device." But then the iPad came along, as had been long-rumored, completely blowing the Kno tablet out of the water—and out of the tablet business. "Take a good look at the Kno textbook tablet," TechCrunch wrote later in 2011, "because you might not ever see it again." But its coverage didn't let up:

  • Kno Turns Textbooks 3D
  • McGraw-Hill & Kno Offer A Peek Into The Future Of Textbooks: They're Dynamic, Vocal, Adaptive & Bring Stats To Studying
  • Kno's Textbooks Is Top Back-To-School iPad App With One Download Every 8 Seconds

And it wasn't just TechCrunch: VentureBeat featured Kno as an example in a post optimistically headlined "What the next multibillion-dollar edtech company will look like," and TheNextWeb honored Kno among "20 of the best ways to buy ebooks, digital comics and etextbooks" It turned out to not be a very good example for either—but it's amazing how well industry optimism performs in the face of common sense.

And then yesterday's news, that Kno had been quietly sold off for "pennies on the dollar." Om Malik went further:

Kno, in many ways is a case study in Silicon Valley hubris, where white-boarding and theoretical thinking doesn't always match up with the reality of the real world. A book publishing industry insider pointed out that Kno was trying to solve a problem that wasn't acute enough for the publishers and the end customers — students. It was a problem Kno wanted to solve for Kno.

Why did it take three years—when the thing was kaput—for someone to point this out? If someone had said, "Do children need a 14-inch dual-screen tablet at school?," would Kno have made it three years on hot air? Maybe Kno owes its silly extended lifespan to people like Marc Andreessen, largely regarded as one of the sharpest tech investors in the world, who tapped the Kno turd with his wand. But it's easy to forget that magician has a long, turdish history of picking losers at the track: Ning, Rockmelt, Digg, fucking Netscape—Andreessen's wake is littered with company corpses and high-flying failures. And now, one more. Not that anyone is counting.