Taking Back Success — 4see’s Post-Mortem
This post is 2 years overdue and the title is inspired by Philippe Chetrit’s post-mortem on Tixelated. Here’s my post-mortem on 4see.
In 2011 I was writing about educational games, working as a contractor for a firm and developed two ideas using educational games. One of them, 4see, was a game to teach team work to teenagers. Teenagers aren’t taught team work in school, yet it is the biggest cause of failure if they try to create a side project. Often, they fail, they don’t try again. Therefore, the idea was that if one taught teenagers who wanted to start a project how to work together, it would create more successful projects and more engaged teenagers as they continued to try more independent projects.
I wanted to work with foundations that funded young innovators, arguing I could help them have a higher success rate. I dove in full time over the summer of 2011. A year later, by the summer of 2012, I was demoralized and shut down the project. I had in fact become the very thing I was trying to teach others not to do.
Irony is a very effective teacher.
Here are the lessons I’ve taken away from the experience to help others succeed (I’m only sharing 3, but there were many more).
Lesson 1: Shortcuts to testing an idea
While my idea had legs, I hadn’t fully baked it before getting started. I didn’t know how the game would work and am today unsure if a game is the best way to teach these sort of skills. I went looking for co-founders and met some very talented people, yet none of them joined. Here was my process:
Create idea > quit job > find co-founders > look for funding > prototype idea > find customers > $$profit$$
Finally, I found someone who was interested in doing something independent and willing to partner, so we started working on it. The problem was he wasn’t totally bought in, nor the right co-founder. We ended up parting ways after 2 months of work (amicably) but I should’ve stopped before this even happened. I couldn’t find the partner I needed which meant my idea wasn’t ready. I eventually did find another co-founder, but we weren’t the right team to solve this problem. This is the real first test of your idea. If you can’t get the perfect (or nearly perfect) person/team to help you then there’s something missing.
The other lesson to test an idea faster is to build a prototype before you start working on it full time. We spent weeks working on a paper prototype of the game, all of which could’ve been done before I started working on it full time. A prototype will show you where you have more thinking to do.
Here’s what process I would use today:
Identify problem > talk to customers > prototype idea with customers > initial success > build team > consider funding > talk to customers > iterate, iterate, iterate!
Lesson 2: Pick your market wisely
As a young innovator going after foundations is a bad idea. They have no bottom line or need to innovate. Some do, but most don’t. And few to none will fund something brand new from you without several years of data on it first. I started talking to friends who worked at foundations who believed in me but said they’d need to see data before they could fund us. Unfortunately we couldn’t wait for that. I spent 3–6 months chasing foundations which ultimately wouldn’t be the place to get our idea off the ground. If I had more experience or connections, weathering this market could have worked. Lesson 2 — know yourself and your timeline when you pick your market. Otherwise your project will be doomed for the wrong reasons.
Lesson 3: Don’t quit your job immediately
I had quite a bit of savings in the bank when I started working on 4see full time. I thought that working full time would allow me to make the most progress. Sometimes this is true, but often the beginning of innovation is talking to potential customers, experts and partners. All of whom are usually busy and usually take weeks to meet with.
If someone offers you funding, then quitting can make sense. Without funding, be sure you have more money than you know what to do with. Every week my lack of earnings ate at me, even though I didn’t need to make money because I had savings.
As an innovator you’re probably stubborn. I know I am. The three lessons above could have all pointed me in a different direction in a month instead of a year. Yet, because I was stubborn, I kept going… and experienced incredible burnout.
As month after month passed and I invested 80 hours a week into the project, I started getting very confused. I thought the failures of 4see were personal failures of mine. That rather than my idea being wrong, I was wrong. After chasing foundations, I ran a Kickstarter campaign that failed and after begging friends and family to get the idea off the ground, I was fully burnt out. We finally put 4see to bed.
The good news was I got hired 2 weeks later to an interesting edtech firm and have had an excellent career since. The bad news is I’m still overcoming that blow to my confidence. Thankfully I am wiser from the experience.