“You never fail until you stop trying.” — Albert Einstein

How we failed in 2017

Nothing teaches quite like failure.

When pHacktory began, we were committed to moving fast, breaking things, and learning as we go. As 2018 begins, we have a variety of audacious ideas to share with the community, but it’s important to recognize the process that led us here.

pHacktory is an ongoing experiment in and of itself, which means we learn a lot from our failures and use those lessons to keep asking “what’s next?”. This unique aspect of who we are gives us the freedom to always be testing and experimenting our own model–driving our own evolution.

So before we jump into 2018, I’d like to reflect on we’ve learned, our incorrect hypotheses, how we’ve failed and what we’ve learned!

pHacktory is an ongoing experiment in and of itself, which means we learn a lot from our failures and use those lessons to keep asking “what’s next?”.

1. Our first big experiment started too early.

After the success of Starling’s One, we put out a public call for audacious project proposals that were curiosity driven and likely to fail. Working on projects like these is really the core activity of pHacktory. We received 44 applications from around the world during our four-week submission window which were assessed by the pHacktory team. We also invited several experts to examine specific proposals when we had questions that required specialist knowledge.

Our initial hypothesis:

If we ask the public for project ideas that are likely to fail and would never get supported by any other organization, we will be able to identify a small number of proposals of high quality with teams in place that are ready to execute rapidly.

What we observed:

  • We received a large number of proposals that were safe, likely to succeed and came across like polished products rather than failure-prone, high-risk, audacious ideas. As worthwhile as many of these projects were, they are not for pHacktory.
  • Many applicants weren’t ready to lead the project they had submitted.
  • Some applications weren’t based in any sort of scientific fact or reality.
  • We were able to identify a small number of proposals that had the “seed” of something failure-prone, high-risk and audacious. But these proposals needed much more development.

What we learned:

  • We need to be much more explicit about our expectations and what we will deliver. Although we thought we were being clear, the evidence suggests we failed.
  • Some people only wanted to share an idea, rather than develop it. Based on the submissions, it’s clear that there are many potential roles beyond the people doing the day-to-day work. Every project needs idea generators, advisors, supporters, cheerleaders, and executors.
  • The most audacious proposals are likely are going to need much more development before we can execute on them.
  • It would be useful for potential applicants to have some sort of litmus test to figure out if pHacktory is the right place to submit a proposal.


In many ways we are still figuring out what pHacktory is and how it works.

Although, we probably put out our call for proposals before truly being ready, the results were extremely useful in helping us realize what we are looking for and what we can do to help specific types of projects. This process of failure and learning has had a really important impact on how we are moving forward in 2018.

However, through this process we identified two proposals that weren’t quite ready and spent several months nurturing them to see what might result. We helped curated project teams while recognizing the many roles people can play in a project. I’m really looking forward to announcing these projects later this year. These two projects allow us to “lead by example”. The projects will provide a clear set of examples of what we consider to be an audacious, high risk and curiosity driven proposal. And they also allow us give potential applicants with explicit data points that should help them decide if they should take them time to apply to pHacktory.

2. We have been too silent about what happened during the proposal process

Over the past year we have been primarily dealing with the execution and consequences of creating an open call for applications. What we learned and how we responded is summarized above and is the product of a year of many core team meetings. While we also participated in other initiatives, these project proposals consumed the majority of our time.

Unfortunately, in public it looked as though we weren’t doing anything and we were asked several times if pHacktory was dead. In some ways we have been the victim of our own success as our first project was highly visible, public and generated some great media attention (we even ended up on the Discovery Channel!).

What we had failed to do this year was to share what was going on under the hood at pHacktory. I’m sure if we had done a better job at sharing our progress and challenges we would have received plenty of advice and help moving forward more quickly. Sharing knowledge is highly valued at pHacktory and while we expect this from our project teams, we should also take time to share the discoveries, challenges and frustrations faced by the core team as well. We are now thinking about how to accomplish this in an effective way. We’d love your feedback if you have ideas about how often and in what medium you’d like to hear from us.

3. We haven’t been proactive enough in expanding our team.

This is one of those failures that is a symptom of a really good problem. From day one, we have been inundated with people wanting to get involved. The problem has been that pHacktory is still so early stage that it’s often unclear what we need. This has made it very difficult for us to communicate exactly what the commitment is in terms of activity, time and length. We’ve recognized this as an issue for several months and have been working on clear descriptions and roles that are needed within pHacktory. We will be rolling out calls for these positions this year and looking forward to growing our team and community.

As failures go, these are some pretty nice ones to have. They demonstrate that we are into something special and just need to keep iterating on the model.

Taking time to reflect on these failures share has helped us to focus and set goals for 2018. We have some big things planned (for real this time!) so be sure to stay up to date with everything going at pHacktory by following us on Twitter or subscribing to our Medium updates or visiting our website.

We are really looking forward to announcing our new projects soon, as well as several new partnerships and projects with other organizations, including Kind Village, Westboro Academy and the National Arts Centre.