Whatever the gurus tell you, failure is hard. Doing it in public is even harder. I know this from experience – I recently ran a Kickstarter campaign which ‘failed’ to reach its target. Nevertheless, rather than wallowing in misery and embarrassment, I’m determined to use my #fail as a learning opportunity.
Failure is an inevitable part of launching a new product, service or business. Thanks to the "Lean Startup" methodology, it has become something of a entrepreneurial buzzword. Indeed, some believe that ‘failure porn’ has gone too far, spawning a whole industry of articles, podcasts and conferences that celebrate fiascos.
However, the original idea behind the fail fast principle still holds many lessons for future-minded publishers today.
In 'Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything', Steve Blank said that successful startups “go quickly from failure to failure, all the while adapting, iterating on, and improving their initial ideas as they continually learn from customers.” This is not a recommendation to would-be entrepreneurs to leave a trail of destruction and chaos on their way to IPO – instead, it's an encouragement to test ideas and learn quickly. Failure is fundamentally about feedback, hence the ‘Build – Measure – Learn’ loop outlined by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup.
Ries' process involves testing assumptions with customers and cycling around the loop, applying learning to rebuild and retest in the search for product-market fit and a scalable business model. Speed is of the essence, and it’s one of the reasons I find design sprints work so effectively – you quickly build and test a prototype within five days. And it's not just helpful for startup founders. It's a great way to ensure that traditional organisations don't get stuck in a bog of perfectionism when trying to push through new ideas.
In addition to having business and product milestones on their development roadmap, founders need to have learning milestones. This involves a change of mindset where you’re happy to run experiments, listen to feedback, and gather data that helps you test a hypothesis. The development process becomes about small incremental change, commonly known as iteration. Sometimes the learning leads to a pivot – a substantial change to the product, market or business model.
In the early days of launching an innovative product or building a startup the goal is validated learning. Some go as far to say that revenue is a side effect of experimentation and not the success criteria. That may be a hard sell to a conservative board of stakeholders, but it's often the reason why external 'disruptors' come up with the industry-shaking product while established companies lag behind. It’s also the reason why many big brands acquire startups, rather than creating their own in-house innovation units. You can see this unfolding in the book world as publishing companies acquire gaming or virtual reality agencies.
And make no mistake, money matters. If you want to turn your side hustle into a startup, or if you’re inside a company and need to prove to your boss that your product is a goer, your early experiments should include revenue validation too. One of the best approaches I learnt about was in a Tech North Founder Network workshop with Rob Fitzpatrick, author of The Mom Test: How to talk to customers and learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you.
Fitzpatrick recommends that customer conversations become about commitment. He says: “Commitment can be cash, but it doesn’t have to be. Think of it in terms of currency – what are they giving up for you?”
There are three major currencies: Time – such as asking a customer to do a trial for a significant period; Reputation – asking for an introduction to a senior decision maker, or getting a public case study; and Financial commitments – getting a deposit or pre-order. The more the customer commits, the more seriously you take what they are saying – and the more valuable the validation.
All of this leads me back to Kickstarter. If my goal was just about reaching the financial target, then I clearly failed. Instead, by taking a learning approach and having a broader hypothesis, I could validate a whole range of experiments. Along the way I met some amazing customers, got a huge amount of feedback, some unexpected media coverage and we’re now developing a B2B revenue model.
In short, my failure might just turn out to be my biggest success.