A Life of Failure

I’m a computer programmer, which means my day is writing ideas down in some sort of code, and then finding a ton of mistakes. Nothing is ever correct the first time I write it down. On the micro level, every day is a series of proposed ideas that fail. This is kind of the same as the MLB batting champions who rarely get a hit any more than 35% of the time. They fail to get a hit at least 65% of the time. Every mistake is another chance to learn, and it’s one reason it takes lots of programming to get really good.

At the macro level, I’ve had a ton of failures. Recently, we decided to stop developing the app we’ve been working on for the last couple years. We’ve been unable to figure out a way to gain traction and we’ve just been beating our heads against the wall for a while. It’s possible that just taking some time away from it will gives us the distance and perspective to see how we can gain that traction. Maybe we’ll see that we were never really close. I think projects, no matter how good the product is, can reach a point where you are just unable to make it work and your team just spins its wheels.

This has happened to me a bunch of times, most notably for me in the late 90’s. We were beating our heads against the wall on this project called “Dr. Homepage”. It was going to be a website that allowed you to build you own homepage, back when people were hacking up really ugly things on Geocities and Tripod and such. We got so close to finishing…something a few times, but we then we’d just fade and get totally off track. We decided to pause and do something quicker and easier to get some money came in.

Internet history was about to be made.

We fell into something called Treeloot. The initial version I only partially worked on. I was 50% of the version that became what most people remember as Treeloot. If you are old enough to have ever seen the famous “Punch the Monkey” banners, then you’ve seen our product. I was not personally behind the ad that became famous, but I wrote half of the “gameserver” that powered the game, Treeloot. The company was changed forever, and Dr. Homepage soon faded away, never to be worked on again. Somewhere in some backup god knows where is some of my oldest code, which is probably utter garbage.

A few years later, during is now known as the Dot Com Crash, well, Treeloot started to fail because we had issues finding advertisers. This is not what you typically consider a “failure”, but the product it turns out didn’t have the legs we thought it would. So out of that failing property, I built a mailing engine that allowed us to move to direct email response. That changed the company as well, but there was yet another failure in there. We build a product that was meant to share revenue with people who received the emails, but it never went anywhere and it slowly faded away. Still, the company was changed forever.

A few years later, we came up with a new kind of email, which I am a patent holder for, and we changed the company again. It wasn’t so much out of failure as it was we found that it was hard to scale up sales for direct email as quickly as we wanted.

Since that dynamic email product, I have primarily worked on edge products, meaning everything I work on is high risk, high reward. Most of them have not panned out. I’ve done two different display advertising products that failed, one because of strategy tax, and the other because of…well, I shouldn’t say. After that I worked on a product that could have unified some company data, but that one failed once I moved off the project. I moved off that project to take a shot at programmatic advertising, but once again, saddled with a strategy tax, that one ended up failing as well. We did learn a lot on that project, and me and two other people actually used that knowledge to make a lot of positive changes that did make a good amount of money. That was my last project with my old company, as I left to go do a startup with the founder of my old company. He has left my old company to do some new things.

So here I am three years later, at the end of another failure. The cynical person might say, that a string of failures points to something wrong with me, but again, I’m always doing edge products. I’m not the worlds greatest pure coder. My greatest skill is just doing whatever it takes to accomplish the goal. I can write in just about any computer language I need to (except python, every man has a line he does not cross), I can do database design, and I can even get deep into statistics if I really had to. This skill is very useful in building products to see if there is something there. But it means I fail most of the time. I always learn, I always get better, but the end of the day, the products don’t always work out.

So soon I start a new adventure, a new product, new challenges, and possibly new failures. If this one fails? Onto the next one!


Originally published at shanebrady.com.

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