Easy come, easy go: Sprout “sunsets” its consumer widget service

Posted on February 18, 2010 4:24 pm by | Business | Technology | Widgets

Sprout logoI am seriously conflicted about how to feel about Sprout‘s decision to “sunset” its consumer widget-building software-as-a-service tool, Sprout Builder.

By “sunset,” of course, Sprout means “kill.” For a startup, they’ve certainly learned the corporate art of doubletalk.

I’ve been raving about Sprout Builder since its debut. Before Sprout Builder, dynamic, multimedia widgets were a costly undertaking requiring programming expertise. Sprout Builder made it drop-dead easy for anybody to create one and deploy it. I got myself a free account and created two for my podcast, For Immediate Release. Fans of the show were able to copy the embed code and add the widget to their own sites where any visitor could click the “play” button and hear the latest episode. All I ever had to do was log in after posting each episode and update the link to the podcast MP3 file.

Creating the widget was a simple drag-and-drop exercise, thanks to the AJAX-enabled website. The process went like this:

  • Create a box to contain the widget, setting the size I wanted.
  • Upload the graphics I want to use, pretty much the same way you upload a video to YouTube.
  • Drag the graphics into the box.
  • Drag an audio player from among the various assets Sprout Builder provides into the box.
  • Link the audio player to the online location of the podcast MP3 file.
  • Save.
  • Publish.
  • Copy the embed code and put it on the FIR site and my own blog so others can get the code for their own sites.
  • (The service also let you create multiple tabs for a widget, link to video and do all manner of other very cool things.)

FIR widgetOne version of the FIR widget was for websites. It’s a bit wider than the one I created specifically as an app for Facebook. I’ve also recommended the service to more than a few people and suggested to Dominic Jones that it would make it simple for companies to provide updated investor information.

I whined a bit when Sprout decided to start charging for the service, but opted to pay the lowest fee since these were the only two widgets I planned to create. (The fee ratchted up based on the number of widgets you wanted to maintain.) I felt I had little choice since the widgets already existed on other people’s sites.

I don’t have any idea how many people have added the widget to their sites, but I’ve seen it in at least a couple dozen places.

Then came word a few days ago that Sprout was abandoning—er, sunsetting—the service, opting to focus solely on its enterprise solution, which runs $2,999 per year. The email from Sprout CEO Carnet Williams begins:

One of the toughest decisions that a start-up faces is where to focus its efforts and resources. Sprout Builder was our first product and has always been near and dear to our hearts. More importantly, we value the customers who have gotten us to where we are today. However, we have made the hard decision to shut down the Sprout Builder subscription service to focus on our enterprise product lines.

So, on March 14, all those widgets fans and friends of FIR have put on their websites will vanish.

I said I was conflicted by Sprout’s move. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the fact that businesses need to make business decisions. And I certainly understand that the same outcome would have occurred had the company run out of money or if it had been acquired by another organization that wanted Sprout’s assets and talent, but not its service.

On the other hand, the company sought customers who built widgets that have been deployed to many other sites. All of us are left high and dry. Depending on what shows up where the widget is supposed to appear on those sites, we could all wind up being the target of some anger (or, at least, some eye rolling). More to the point, if I offer something like this in the future, who’s going to trust me? My credibility will suffer because Sprout didn’t keep its implicit promise to its customers.

Sprout also seems not to have opted for any actions to minimize the impact. They haven’t offerd to open-source the code for Sprout Builder. They haven’t pointed customers to an alternative. And if they tried to sell the service to somebody else, they haven’t said so.

I’ve tried finding a comparable service. Whoever staffs Widgetbox’s Twitter account provided half an answer to a question I posed, but never answered my follow-up question, even when I sent the query a second time.

Ultimately, then, I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated by the situation, the inability to find an alternative, the requirement to put the word out to bloggers and site managers who are hosting the widget, and the fact that I’m aggravated even as I recognize Sprout’s right to manage its business.

Is my aggravation justified? And if you ran Sprout, how would you have handled a decision like this?

 

Comments

  • 1.Shel,

    Start-ups aside (and I am offering the disclaimer that this is my personal opinion), I imagine that Dominic and I are in violent agreement on this one. Imagine the potential of offering tagged financial data (XBRL) via a drag and drop widget?

    Not only would be be a hit for companies, but presuming they want to put out their financials, there are a host of content syndicators out there who would do the same. Free advertising.

    And Sprout? My view is that if,as company, you actively seek out customers and can't find a workable revenue model, it is incumbent upon you to offer an interim solution while they close up shop - Sprout was the one who lured you - not the other way around.

    Mark

    Mark Story | February 2010 | Washington, DC

  • 2.Love all the free tools out there. So many can be used to solve issues in practical fashion. However, I'm always leery about the business model. I love free.. but I need to know what will stay free and for how long. From there.. I'd really like to know how the company has determined they can support the free version. Without that in place... freemium fails miserably. There's no way for the user to plan around the service without knowing the providers long-term plan.

    Jim Canto | February 2010 | Shawnee, KS

  • 3.Shel,

    I understand and share your conflict over this change. Ultimately Sprout's management team has a responsibility to their investors to ensure the financial viability of their company and so they do have to make hard choices around the focus of their company.

    However, it is definitely unfortunate that they could not offer a transition plan or help their community of users fine an alternative. Perhaps they still will in the next few weeks, but if not, they are definitely creating hard feelings within the community of early adopters.

    Dan

    Dan York | February 2010

  • 4.Shel,

    You're way too forgiving. This has nothing to do with the future viability of the company. It would've cost Sprout very little to shut down taking on further subscriptions but also continued to support the existing set of subscribers at a minimal level. It would've been the classy thing to do. This is not a business decision. It's some venture vulture's decision.

    For those interested in alternatives to sprout (the emerging Adobe AIR/Catalyst framework guarantees there'll be dozens by year's end), check out:

    Adobe Catalyst -- see their prototype builder demo. There's a learning curve, but it's mostly drag and drop. Drawback: No syndication service.

    Swish Max 2 -- a flash builder. Starting from scratch it took me about a week's worth of effort to duplicate my sprout. Drawback: the interface is classic adobe-ugly and there's no syndication.

    SlideRocket -- this is cloud based slide maker. Think of it as web-based Powerpoint with a flash focus. It's elegant and very easy, but has its limitations (the company thinks their product is about making slides).

    I tried Wix, but it's either designed by clowns or for clowns, so I had to give it a pass.

    best,

    Anil

    Anil Menon | March 2010

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