Why my startup failed, and how I knew when to quit
Yesterday I got an email — “Your domain registration has expired”, and finally said goodbye to my startup that failed long ago. Here’s a look back at that, and what I learned.
I’m 24, and I don’t have any kids but it sure feels like I’ve had a baby before. That baby was a startup, Aquaponos, that I tried to launch in college. As you can infer by the title, it didn’t work out — and that’s okay because we learned. I remember sitting with my co-founder Chandler while on a trip to Silicon Valley for our startup. I asked him, “Why are you doing this?” We both decide that we were there to learn. Aquaponos was a grand experiment for us, and an idea to make the world a better place — we were learning as we went. Does that make a good business model? Probably not, but here are the results of our experiment.
You actually need to sell things
That sounds pretty obvious right? But it wasn’t to three co-founders with engineering backgrounds who were obsessed with their product. We essentially ran an R&D business and spent all of our time building. What we really needed a more diverse skill set as we would have benefited from someone who was just as obsessed with sales or business development. At the end of the day, you need an MVP that creates some sort of value to address a problem and real pain point that your customers face. That’s it. Once you have that, you can hustle, sell, gain insights, and grow.
Get your product out there and get someone to pay for it. Then, go from there.
Winning money or investments isn’t success (or failure)
We spent too much time and too much energy on pitch competitions. At the time, that money seemed like what we needed. Without it, what could we possibly do? We had an adviser that said:
Cash is like air. Without it you can’t breathe and it’s all you think about.
While this is true, it doesn’t take into account how much you can accomplish on little cash. When you’re starting out you want to be scrappy and put your limited time and resources into the smartest things. Every dollar spent is an investment in your startup, and one that should be made carefully. We spent too much valuable time chasing the next dollar from competitions and investment when we should have spent that time chasing dollars from the next sale.
Investment doesn’t mean you’re successful, it just means you convinced someone to give you money. Use that money to work on your success.
Know when to quit
After I graduated when continue to drag out our failure. We hadn’t sold anything, still, and we found ourselves with a team in three different places spread across a full-time job, grad school, and law school. You know what comes next. We obsessed over a patent, which wasn’t the right thing to pursue, and threw every last dollar into it. We started missing our regular check-ins and stopped responding all together. When we finally sat down on a call?
I think it’s time we call it quits.
We were already done, but finally put words and a commitment to that. We talked about how to divide our assets and moved to dissolve. How did we know? We were no longer passionate about it, it wasn’t burning in the back of our heads at all hours. We weren’t obsessed anymore, the experiment was over and we were writing down our conclusions.
The last step of learning is reflection
Kolb’s model of experiential learning approaches it from a circular perspective. You have some idea, you experiment with it, you gather examples from that, and then you reflect. What does this mean? You need to reflect on what happens to gain something from it, and to keep learning. Most things in life are, when done best, iterative. Learning is no different.
I still strive to found a startup one day. I’ve always thought of entrepreneurship as a way to create world change, and want to bring a world changing idea to life one day. To get there, I know I need to learn how to build a better business, be a better leader, and solve the right problems. In doing all these things — writing this article, reflecting, and pursuing awesome opportunities — I’m learning.
Make sure you do take the time to reflect too. What went wrong? What went right? What should happen next time? How could you have better spent your time and resources?