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

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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.

  • http://uk.techcrunch.com/author/ciara-byrne/ deciara

    We should probably think about new products as being a bit like scientific reseach. It’s perfectly acceptable to have an incorrect hypothesis as long as you learn something useful by disproving it, e.g. you identify a deadend and save someone else from pursuing it or the process gives you a hint of the right direction.

    • http://aftnn.org Ben Godfrey

      Absolutely. Entrepreneurial inspiration is a great service that individuals and small organisations offer in the marketplace. Investors can’t come up with enough of it so they crowd-source. For an entrepreneur to be successful, the trick is to try something similar: iterating. The best iterating process we have at the moment follows Eric Ries’ lean startup methodology, which is very scientific in it’s inspiration, if a little more scrappy in it’s execution.

    • http://kevindewalt.com Kevin Dewalt

      “We should probably think about new products as being a bit like scientific research”

      This is exactly what the whole lean start-up movement is about….

      See work by Eric Ries and Steve Blank

  • http://www.gymfu.com Jof

    Our biggest lesson was learning that “Failing Fast” and “hey, if we spent a month improving broken feature X then everyone will buy it” are two very different things. Now we fail weekly, not monthly.

    Erm… I think that’s a good thing!

  • http://theviralmarketingblog.com Ricardo

    Great article, thanks!

    Worth reading for every start-up out there.

  • http://twitter.com/SpaceyG SpaceyG

    I feel so much better now about my ability to suck at just about everything.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com Mark Essel

    Learning about the product space by conducting an exhausting analysis sounds like it did you a lot of good. Was there no space for the type of tool you were describing as a web service (HTML 5)? Making sites look good on mobiles is an area ripe for development ( see http://www.bravenewcode.com/wptouch/ )

  • http://www.locle.com Ronan Higgins

    Failing fast is to be recommended. Innovators tend to have more good ideas than time and resources to develop them. It’s important to test the market quickly and move on quickly if there’s no market, or else you get trapped in the zombie company valley of death.

    Enterprise Ireland has an excellent support programme for just this: the Feasability Study grant programme. But amazingly, and in line with your own observations about British attitudes to “failure”, if the Feasability Study shows that there is not a strong market for the product or service, Innovators are not eligible to apply for Feasability Grants on other Innovations.

    What this culture of “anti-failure” results in is Innovators skewing their Feasability Study results to show that bad ideas will work. Taking on funding and driving forward with business plans that are doomed from the outset.

    It’s no wonder the UK and Ireland have far lower returns on venture capital investments than in the US.

  • http://www.fanduel.com Nigel Eccles

    Great post Sam and good on you for talking openly about one of the biggest challenges in starting a company in the UK.

    Silicon Valley sees the biggest successes but it also sees the most and the biggest failures. Also, many of the most of the successful entrepreneurs have had earlier efforts that have failed. If we want to have lots of big successes in the UK then we have to have lots of failures (preferably early small ones) as well.

  • http://www.carderoo.com Rob

    Nice article Sam – very refreshing. I like your American attitude. Start-ups are hard work and like you say, you need to fail in order to succeed. I’m sure you’ll come out with a great service as a result of the experience. Go forth and conquer!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andy_Brett/1100419 Andy Brett

    Very nice.

  • http://thedreaminaction.com Ryan Graves

    I recently gave a talk on startup failure, not a super comfortable topic but valuable for those in attendance.


    Great post & it’s good to see this sort of thing being more and more acceptable.


  • http://how2livelife.blogspot.com NewWorldOrder

    To me, killing an idea w/o a micro-test that gives supporting data can’t even count as a “failure.”

  • http://lallylogic.startitup.net Brendan Lally


    Fabulous post.

    I see too many startups (particularly in the mobile space) that look so similar (me-too) and I had thought that when I ‘seen’ your website before.

    There is not enough realistic due-diligence when startups have an idea. SOME of those ideas can make sense in a local setting (e.g. Ireland) where their is a more geographic “distance” (can be cultural as well) and allows for more than one company (in a global sense) doing the ‘same’ type of thing.

    The lack of “failure is good” in EU circles (IRL, UK etc..) is a complete culture problem that I think will take a new generation to solve.

    The ‘learn from (startup) failures” is one the biggest plus’s I gain from living here in the US.


  • http://www.shoutem.com Viktor Marohnic

    Nice post. Lot of usefull info.
    But I still believe that you guys were on the right track. That space is growing and product that you have described could be interesting. Right now apps are hot and maybe later HTML5 will be also. But you can always adapt on the way. Once you have customers, revenues, brand it should be easier.
    See you and stay good!

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  • http://blog.alexguest.me Alex Guest

    It’s great that you’ve saved yourself so much time and effort. I’m curious to know what it was in the Seedcamp experience that enabled you to realise that it was time to pull the plug.

  • http://wildirishguy.wordpress.com Damon Oldcorn

    In the UK nobody wants to be attached to failure, or really admit that it happens everyday in the entrepreneurial landscape. Most startups fail, most VC backed startups fail – at least 70% so they say. As Jof Arnold said on Twitter the other day – “Startups are an extreme sport”. If first time players really knew the odds most would avoid the journey completely. Luckily for serial players selective amnesia tends to set in very quickly to allow them to start again.

  • http://nickpoint.co.uk Nick Barker

    Great post!!

    This is a pivotal question for startups – Knowing when to quit! There is such a fine balance between failure and success. I believe its time to restart when customers and investors don’t believe in an idea any more. But most importantly customers.

    The problem with ‘build a product’ business is that you don’t know the demand ahead of making the product (unlike consultancy services). So you look at the competition and try to find a gap between the competitors. But you don’t really know if in fact there is a gap in the market because customer demand is based on a time and a place offering. The market has changed since your competitors started.

    Uncertainty abounds and there is no easy answer. I think you just have to be flexible around customer needs, differentiate against your competition and be prepared to change.

    I thought and posted alot around this question:




    Good luck with your learning and next startup idea



  • http://www.yumento.com David J Lowe

    Well said Sam. I hate the British perception of failure and can see why America is renowned as being the home of the entrepreneur. I am in the process of getting my startup going and I constantly have to filter out all the talk of failure and negativity. Well done for being bold enough to stand up and realise that your idea was not ‘the one’. Now onto the next one and good luck to you.

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