Learning from others’ missteps
Three of the most significant professional events in my life consist of two horrific failures and one budding success. The latter only possible because of the former. Failure number one lead to failure number two and failure number two lead to a corporate cubicle job where I nearly gave up all hope of ever tasting the sweet fruits of start-up glory. There is a fundamental difference between my business failures and those of most entrepreneurs. I cheated. That’s right, my failures were not actually mine. I stole them from hard-working, fearless businessmen who were generous enough to allow me to piggyback on their hard lessons.
Prior to my first post-grad gig I was living it up in an attempt to savor my final days of college. Then after graduation in 2007 I got a job with an innovative start-up home builder in Austin, Texas, lead by a highly regarded industry vet. I was working as a graphic designer on a three-person marketing team where I learned everything I could about adobe design software and designing for the web. I was overpaid for my experience level with full benefits, stock options, and a private office overlooking Barton Creek. Was it really this easy? Had I made it? Nope. Little did I know we were on the brinks of the worst housing crisis in decades. Naturally, a new home building company that was fueled by investors (rather than profits) would have a difficult time weathering the storm. I was let go one year later during a round of layoffs. Getting laid off is awful, but I can only imagine how bad it was for the guy who sank his life into the company.
I learned two important lessons 1) Raising enormous amounts of capital to fund an idea may work for some people, but this is not the approach I ever want to take and 2) Pay extremely close attention to the current market trends in your industry.
In late 2008 I was unemployed, living off my future wife’s teaching salary and determined to “start-up.” I was exploring a few ideas of my own, when an old friend from high school told me about his successful Ebay company and his plans to expand. He needed a web developer and since I had some basic web design and development skills I told him I was in. He couldn’t afford to pay me so I agreed to work for a profit share initially. We designed and built a prototype, launched it and it worked! It really worked! Money was flowing and we were re-investing in what was sure to be the next tech start-up sensation. There were three partners including myself, we had an office downtown complete with a pool table, a couple employees, and a writeup in the Austin Business Journal. We made it, right? Wrong. After successfully launching our prototype, our naivety lead us to believe that we had to take things to the “next level.” We embarked on a new plan so ambitious that we were destined to fail from the get-go. Instead of focusing on our working business model, we cast it aside to concentrate on a concept so grandiose that it destroyed all of our early success. Luckily, I had invested no money and my profit share gave me no claim to any losses.
After a little success it’s easy to let your ego cloud your mind with unrealistic ideas. Stay grounded, focus on your core revenue drivers, and don’t get ahead of yourself.
After my second professional failure, I tucked my tail between my legs and went back to the corporate world. While deep in the depths of cubicle hell, I received a phone call from an old college buddy with an idea so awesomely simple that it was worth trying. Back in college, my fraternity brother Ryan Young and I had many long, alcohol-fueled conversations about how amazing American fraternity life is and how the mainstream media outlets had yet to capture it for all its glory. At the time we were too preoccupied with parties/booze/girls/etc to do anything about it. Three years later we were finally at a point in our lives where we possessed the focus and maturity to mainstream the glorious immaturity that is TotalFratMove.com. With $120 and lots of man hours, we built the initial site in just under three weeks. Our plan was to keep the content simple and optimized for sharing on Twitter and Facebook. This strategy worked and helped us gain traction. We were growing at an incredible rate, doubling our daily visitor count every two weeks. After a couple months of explosive growth, Ryan and I left our day jobs to pursue frat comedy full-time and we haven’t looked back since. The lessons learned from my previous experiences with failure continuously influence my decision making and have helped us avoid any major pitfalls thus far.
So, if you’re too scared to fail on your own, go work for a start-up company. Who knows, it could be a huge success and you might cash in as an early employee. But if you’re really lucky, it’ll fail and you’ll learn exactly what not to do next time around.