Failed flat on your face? Think again, Columbus

You are wired to think about success in black and white terms. You said you’ll do X? Didn’t work out? You’ve failed, right? Many times this is true. You can fail an exam, fail to do what you’ve promised, fail to follow a plan... But success and failure have a different meaning in a startup.

Failed flat on your face? Think again, Columbus

Christopher Columbus was set out to find an alternative route to Eastern Asia. He did not reach his goal. But the Spanish crown’s underlying reason of these trips was to gain the upper hand over rival powers in the contest for the lucrative spice trade with Asia. Columbus didn't find that alternative route, but he surely sumbled upon something bigger.

Columbus was an explorer. So are you. A startup’s goal is to search for a business model - not to execute it (Steve Blank). You are set out to explore the space determined by your vision in a search for a business model that works.

But when you are in a middle of it, it is hard to let go of what you have been repeatedly taught about success and failure.

A startup story from the trenches

We had the privilege to work with an early stage startup a while ago. Together with the founders we went through the first steps of customer discovery. We meticulously identified our hypotheses on a customer segment, the key problems of the segment, and how the startup's offering contributes to solving those problems. Out of those hypotheses, we derived an interview script.  We then compiled a list of 10+ people to contact, and out of the building the founders went.

Three weeks later, we met to evaluate their findings. The founders were disappointed. It turned out a complete failure! Out of the 10+ interviews they conducted, the respondents consistently showed no resonance with the assumed problems, nor were they seeing any benefits from the technology the startup was building. They gave counter example after counter example how it actually works in their market.

The founders were deeply disappointed. Apparently, the hole in the market they'd wished for wasn't there. Utter failure!

A successful explorer does take dead-end paths, but figures it out quickly

Imagine our startup took a traditional approach. Instead of carrying out the interviews, they just built the damn thing, and then tried to push it on their customers. They could have been busy for months, if not years, before learning they’re on a wrong path.

Instead, they spent a few days talking to a couple of people, gained profound market knowledge - and saved themselves a huge investment with no return.

I call that a success.

So get back on your feet, go back to your drawing board and:

  • Try a different segment
  • Think if you can repurpose your technology to solve the problems that did surface during interviews
  • Think if you can remove features for focus, or to add features for a more holistic solution

Any other ideas? Or similar war stories that gave you the bittersweet taste of failure and success? Just lean a comment or email us, we would love to talk to you.