Lessons I’ve Learned From My Failed Startups

I often like to joke and say that if some people are serial entrepreneurs, then I’m a serial failtrepeneur . Ok, it’s not failure if you learn something and I did learned a thing or two from my previous failed startups.

If Something Worked For Others, It Doesn’t Mean It Will Work For You

I’ve read (and still read) a lot of books and blogs and articles about attracting customers/followers , 10 ways to do this, 12.5 techniques to become successful, business blunders, biographies of successful people etc. I thought I did all the right things and yet… well, you know the outcome. Does this means they don’t work? Some things worked, most of them didn’t. The mistake I’ve made is to think that if I’m copying a technique that worked for others, it will automatically work for me too. It doesn’t work that way and in hindsight it should have been common sense.

Anything you read happened in the past. Different mindsets and contexts. That solution might have worked great in the ‘90, but we’re in a different era now, technology changed people and how we do things. The good news is that principles still work, but not the actual recipe. We have to adapt it to the current context. What about a solution that worked 2 years ago? Same thing, you are addressing a slightly different market now and it might not have the same impact (or none at all).

The point here is we have to understand the principles of things that worked, adapt them to current situation and to not be surprised if they don’t work at all.

Experience, Money and Talent Don’t Guarantee Success

Some years ago (in 2007), there was a MMO game called _Tabula Rasa_ which had everything: a well known and experienced game designer (Richard Garriot aka Lord British of Ultima fame) a known publisher with deep pockets (NCSoft) and certainly a team of experienced developers and all the marketing (and specialists) money can buy. And with an estimated cost of 100 millions usd we can safely assume they hired all the talent they needed. And yet, the game failed as a business due to lack of subscribers and the servers were shutdown after just 1.5 years .

A more recent example is Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) MMO, which is estimated to have cost over 300 million usd and was touted as the World of Warcraft killer. Great franchise, well known developer (Bioware) and a big — but hated — publisher (EA) . They had money, experience, talent etc and they still failed. Not that big, because they still exist as a F2P (Free to play) game but it’s not a secret that a MMO starting as subscription based and going F2P means it failed to get enough subscribers to be profitable.

These are two examples proving that even businesses with lots of money, fame and experience don’t have a recipe for success. As a side node, my latest failed startup was a web based strategy MMO . The taste of failure isn’t that bitter when you know you’re in such good company.

If your business struggles because you have a small team (1–2 people), you’re nobody and your capital is expressed in 2–3 digits you might think “If only I was famous/had more money/had a bigger team”, but clearly this doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of startups started by nobodies, with no team and no money that grew up to be successful.

Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate

Every product/service/company has its haters. Really, there’s no escape, someone will find you and (s)he’ll tell you how shitty your product, your business, you and your cat are. And they get great delight from that. Others really want to help you, but for whatever reason you have to do _exactly as they say_ or else you’ll fail. And if you’re one of the special few, you might even get death threats (didn’t happened to me, but happened to a guy I know).

When you’re a very young startup, you do care for each user and for their feedback. You want to create the perfect product for them and naturally you encourage them to tell you their suggestions and to provide you with constructive criticism. When a hater or a nitpicker come to tell you the ‘cold hard truth’ you might think it would be a good idea to explain them why you did things that way and how maybe they didn’t notice a certain feature or how their suggestion isn’t compatible with the long term vision of your product. Well, when you identify such personality the best thing you can do for your business and your sanity is to ignore them.

You need to identify the good users that will improve your product from the haters. A good user is someone that understands your vision and provides solutions for problems aka constructive criticism. They help you grow and they really care about your product. A hater/nitpicker cares only about getting attention. Don’t feed the troll.

You Really Need to Sell Before You Build

It seems I’m not learning this lesson fast enough. I keep building first then promoting while any successful tech entrepreneur says the order should be reversed. I’m a builder at heart, a backend developer nevertheless and promoting is out of my comfort zone. Especially when I don’t have a working product, only some vague idea. How can I promote something that doesn’t exist or something I can’t yet describe in one phrase?

It feels natural for me to build then promote. But facts say I’m wrong. When you have so many successful people telling you it’s better to do things in a certain way, try to ignore your habits and DO what they say. It might feel wrong, your OCD might torture you but… you have to be strong and listen to the people who have the experience. If you want your startup to grow and succeed you need to trust the successful people that once were in your shoes.

Secrets and Magic Recipes Don’t Exist

It’s both a feature and a bug of our brain to search for shortcuts. We want to find out the easiest way to be successful, the magic button that can bring hundreds of customers over night and we read stories about people that in 1 week they developed an app (although they’ve learned how to code 3 days before) and in 2 days they had 100k downloads. Or how they just launched some product/prototype [magic happened] and with no advertising and no money involved, 1 week after they had 500 subscribers or $1000 in MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue).

There are lots of stories like these where it seems that building a successful online business is so trivial that you need only a vague idea, some basic coding then you tweet about it a few times and hordes of users will crash your server. And there you are, struggling to get your first customers, doing everything you’ve read about growing your business and the sound of crickets is deafening. Maybe you did something wrong, maybe you are stupid or maybe you need the secret recipe.

There’s no such thing, all the businesses started by small, unknown teams didn’t grow because of an ancient secret, but because people worked their asses off day and night. They did things, they made mistakes, they tried and failed, they adapted and tried again until they found something that worked. It’s all boring work, no flashy wizards in sight.

Don’t waste time looking for shortcuts, just do everything that seems useful for your business to grow. Try, assess, adapt then try again. Repeat after me: there is no magic or secret recipe.

How about your experiences? Feel free to share them in the comments below.