Embrace your startup failure – the faster you fail, the better

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Toshiba L01 prototype on display at CEATEC

This is a guest post by Sam Collins, one of the team members of Loc8 Solutions, a finalist in Seedcamp London 2009. Sam founded TechMeetup (@Techmeetup) in Edinburgh which has brought together the largest community of Scottish tech enthusiasts and is now running in Glasgow and soon Aberdeen. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in June 2009 with a MEng in Civil Engineering and was awarded UK Graduate of the Year 2009 by the Institute of Fire Engineering. Sam joined Loc8 Solutions in April this year as Commercial Director, but left this year. He explains why below.

We went to Seedcamp, and spent three grueling days analysing our product. On the Thursday of the week we didn’t pitch for investment, and in fact, we completely sacked the product. That sounds bad – but this was a great achievement. If you don’t understand why, read on.

Loc8 Solutions began as a startup that bootstrapped with contract work for iPhone and Android applications. We saw an opportunity to make a mobile app builder that allows anyone to make their own app just by designing the screens and selecting features. Think WordPress for mobile apps. No more £30,000 bills for getting an iPhone app from an agency, no specialist skills required, and more apps for everything you need. It won’t do games, but it’s perfect for information retrieval and media content apps.

Before we started coding, we had a lot of stuff to examine. Firstly, the market. Well the mobile app market is big and forecast for huge growth. Check. Everyone wants their own apps. Check. Nobody else lets you make apps so easily. Check. Imagine the excitement – we had found a big, fun concept, we had spoken to a few potential customers and they wanted it. But as we dived deeper into Seedcamp week, it became gradually clear that all was not well.

We realised that the mobile web could replace the type of apps we’re providing. We can bide our time with the release of new App Stores and leverage the current marketing hype around apps, but soon enough browsers with HTML5 will provide the key benefits of apps such as location and offline support. That scrapped the long-term potential of our idea.

Our customers, digital agencies, will seek a high quality product but they will absorb the greatest margin from the end client – as a business we must go direct to the end client. Scrap the product, this needs to be a service.

Also, a popular request from clients is for marketing advice along with the development of apps. Scrap everything, it turns out this is a specialist mobile app-shop with a consulting (ugh!) element.

Against all the excitement over the past few days, we had to accept that the product didn’t have any wings. It might make a great open source project, or could even be a good internal tool for Loc8 to cut costs on development, but it’s hard to see it going much further. Come Thursday we didn’t pitch for investment – we just presented our tumultuous story of the last three days, and explained the realistic opportunity at hand, which needs no investment. We got our product to fail in three days.

Afterwards one journalist asked “why are you so happy to be a failure?”, slightly set aback by the bluntness, I responded “I don’t think we’re failures, we just saved ourselves months of rewardless pain and effort”.

There’s an odd sentiment in the UK around the term “failure” which makes us feel like we should avoid it for fear of being labeled an idiot. This is wrong, for the following reasons:

1) If you are trying something, you will fail at some point – it’s not a reality to achieve a 100% success rate – and that’s not even the challenge. I believe you only really fail when you don’t get up and go again.

2) You need to be critical, don’t blind yourself with false hope or ignorance, and question everything. This leads to good decision making, and it will be needed over the lifetime of your project. Sometimes the best decision is to stop, and do something else.

We really wanted to build this product. For a long time we thought it was an incredible startup opportunity. But as we progressed, we had to face the reality that it wasn’t as we first thought. And we stopped.

In failing so quickly, we can now spend the time on other opportunities which may succeed. Eric Ries explains this process in more detail, and it’s an essential lesson for anyone doing startups to be able to learn.

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