Failure: a different approach and lessons learned.
Note: this story was originally published on Feb 12, 2015. A few things changed since that day and I plan to write about it soon enough.
Failure is one of those funny words. Everyone talks about it. Everyone runs from it. As it turns out, what really matters is how you look at it, how you define it. In our own simple definition, “failing” means “not trying”. In other words, a failure is not a product of an action, but the lack of it.
Entrepreneurship is not only about taking risks, but also about being persistent. Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently said he was rejected 10 times from Harvard. Not one. Not two. Not tree. Ten. And the story does not end there. Ma said he applied to 30 jobs and got rejected from all of them. At KFC (in China), for instance, 24 people applied, 23 got jobs; only Ma was rejected. He’s now one of the richest man alive. Had he given up, or not kept trying, he would’ve never made it to the top.
Interestingly, the world is full of similar stories. Stories of people who never stopped believing, who never quit or took ‘no’ as an answer. That doesn’t mean though that those stories are all about wildly rich people.
The truth is you can’t really measure success. One of the most common misconceptions, especially in tech, is that to be successful you need to be a multimillionaire (or billionaire). You don’t. Speaking of which, what is “success” anyways? Its definition could vary a lot, depending on who you ask. But please don’t take me wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim for the jackpot. However, more important than planning is doing.
Focus on building something people love. Something people will (want to) tell their friends. Something that is intrinsically part of their lives. Something that would actually make their lives miserable if it suddenly stopped existing. Building such a product is no easy task, I know, but at least you’re trying. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry. Statistically speaking, most products “fail”. Put your shit together and start over as fast as you possibly can. Don’t waste a second of your precious time mourning over a dead product (I’m assuming that at this point you already know why it didn’t work out as expected).
Fail fast, fail often?
“The goal is not to fail fast. The goal is to succeed over the long run. They are not the same thing”. — Marc Andreessen
The “fail fast” advice has been out there for a while. The main idea is that you should build products faster, spending less money. If it fails, you won’t lose much. That obviously makes sense. After all, nobody wants to be stuck in a mediocre, time-consuming & zero revenue product forever. If a product is not proven valuable early, it will hardly be in the future. Nevertheless, there’s a pitfall. Having the focus on a possible failure will most likely keep you distant from success. Some people use the fail fast advice as an excuse or to hide their fear of failure. It’s no shame to be afraid of things going wrong, but the moment people understand that they only fail when they give up (or don’t try) everything will be different. Your goals become more clear. The anxiety gets better. You feel lighter. That said, don’t start a business — or build a product — expecting it to fail (acknowledging it may is a whole new story). If it happens, it happens. Take the good out of it and look forward. That’s it.
Zeep Labs is our way to tell the world we won’t give up. We’re a small team of designers and developers who have been disappointed, but not unmotivated. In 2012/13, we’ve built a real-time, location based photosharing app that went through an acceleration program in Europe, but didn’t go anywhere afterwards. In 2013/14, we started building a team communication & file sharing platform that also didn’t go anywhere (Slack came out of beta and had us for dinner before we even launched). Tired of wasting time on complex projects while working part-time on them, we decided to take the dev studio approach. We’ll build a new, simple app every one or two months, iterating quickly. We know some may flop. We just don’t build them expecting that. Our goal is to experiment with (potentially) cool concepts throughout 2015 until something sticks. When it happens — and it will — we’ll focus on that apparent winner.
Other than that, we believe 2015 will be a great year to build new products. The soon to be launched Apple Watch, for instance, will certainly bring lots of opportunities. Smart TVs are also interesting. Nevertheless, some people tend to believe that you can’t come up with anything new or disruptive because “there’s already an app for whatever you are thinking about”. While that’s not entirely false for today’s standards, society changes a lot. And when it does, opportunies surge. As Paul Graham puts it, predicting change is hard, but being open-minded, explicitly believing in change, helps a lot. A change in (mass) behavior, not competition, is what drives innovation.
We’ve heard all kinds of comments regarding the above mentioned strategy. Some people believe it is a bad idea, mainly because of the (apparent) lack of focus. Others approve it. The idea of swiftly iterating through different ideas, however, is enticing enough to us. The fact is that we don’t want to spend 6+ months building a (complex) product that may not even launch. Believe it or not, we were applying “Lean Startup” principles to it. We just didn’t have enough time to build a basic version faster, especially after Slack raised the bar. Besides, truth be told: any product that takes 6+ months to launch is already dead anyways.
To be clear: we didn’t invent the dev studio approach. Some very smart entrepreneurs have been doing it for a while and have been, of course, a source of inspiration. The best two examples I can think of right now are Pieter Levels’ 12 startups in 12 months and the story of the team behind the relatively new photosharing app Swipe.
As for us, we’re already working on a few projects. Last month we launched Flesy, a shopping list & expenditure control app. And we’re currently working on Pinpush, a private, hands-free location sharing app to let friends & family know, via contextual push notifications, when you are on the way to a specific place.
Never stop dreaming
Only entrepreneurs know how entrepreneurship can be a bitch. We all work hard as hell. Most sleep, eat and exercise poorly, which is terrible by the way. Very few make it to the top — remember, however, that the notion of “making it to the top” can be easily related to that of “success”. You don’t need to raise (or exit for) millions or IPO to have a good life. Still, it is a lot of work and way too much risk.
Why on Earth people do it, then? I’ll go as far as to say that most of us do it out of pure passion. I won’t be a hypocrite and say money is not important. Of course it is. Big time. But I sincerely believe that most of us — dreamers — want to make a dent in the universe, want to create something people really care about. Something that ultimately helps them live a better life. You’ll only achieve that if you never stop dreaming. Dark days, those that make you feel like a loser and that look like everything you did was for nothing, are more common than you think. We’ve all been there, but let me assure you those days are like Snapchat. Ephemeral. After a while, they disappear and you become stronger, more capable of doing whatever you need to do to make your dreams come true. And if it seems like it is taking too long, fear not, it is also more common than you think. Persistence, as on Ma’s case, is key.
Dreaming, however, comes with a price. Some people will think you’re crazy — or dumb. Most people won’t ever get what you are doing. Some may even think you are “playing around” or “not doing things right”. You should never ever let these people get under your skin. The best thing to do is to be around supportive people. People who know you and, most importantly, believe in what you are doing. That goes all the way down from your co-founders to friends & family. Being open to criticism is evidently crucial. What you need to do though is separate the good — those that help you improve — from the bad, the empty speech.
No matter how difficult it is, never give up. Go after your dreams, have fun and be a little better today than you were yesterday. When you least expect it, you’ll be rewarded. We’ll keep doing our part. Will you?