Silicon Valley is said to have a culture that embraces failure as a learning process. But that doesn't mean you have to fail first before you can succeed. A recent roundup of posts by founders whose startups failed gives quite a bit of insight into the wide range of reasons that led to the same outcome. It only contains one music tech startup tale, that of Zillionears, but that alone should be a cautionary tale for music tech startups seeking to solve problems for musicians, especially those wading into a crowded area as so many are doing.
In keeping with Silicon Valley media's recent interest in failure as a compelling theme for startups, especially given that most Silicon Valley-style startups will fail, CB Insights has drawn together 51 Startup Failure Post-Mortems."
Basically it's a huge page of quotes from posts by founders of startups that failed. It's really one of the better examples of a big roundup connecting multiple posts.
The individual quotes are instructive on their own and designed to be a group rather than representing the whole post. Clicking through I ended up reading a number of the posts and some of them are quite in-depth and full of educational nuggets.
One was by Jordan Nemrow, co-founder of Zillionears.
Social Sales by Zillionears
In My Startup Failed. Fuck. Nemrow described the initial phase of failure:
The product was a flash sale platform for musicians to release their music using dynamic pricing (zillionears.com). To us, this software was a no brainer for musicians to use. The artists get to engage their fans while enticing their community to share with friends. So we talked to a few artists who said they thought it was a cool idea. BOOM! Our idea had been validated! After that moment we basically stopped talking to artists for a year and built (and rebuilt) the software until we thought it was acceptable."
Wow! That's a lot of FAIL in one paragraph:
Failure to seriously validate the idea with working musicians.
Failure to iterate based on customer needs by going away for a year and creating a de facto solution.
Actually those are pretty closely related. When they finally did put out a beta version and got some response, here's what happened in addition to some technical problems:
People really didn’t really LIKE anything about our product. No one that used the service thought it was that cool. In fact, some people that participated in the sale didn’t even like our 'dynamic pricing' system. They were trying to support the artist, so saving a few dollars didn’t excite them. They could easily have just gotten his music for free elsewhere.
Their response? Double-down on the product basically as it was and reach out to more musicians. 1700 musicians, in fact, of whom somewhere between 1 and 10 seemed interested. Not per cent. Individuals.
As they built to their second beta release with one musician prepared for launch, he discovered that what they meant by dynamic pricing" wasn't what he thought so he decided to go with another platform.
And that was the end of that. But there's more to be learned as Nemrow went on to describe co-founder miscommunication and ego, as well as lack of a competent designer, as additional problems.
Both co-founders were also interviewed together which I haven't checked out yet but should be interesting given Nemrow's candor.
Some of Zillionears' issues could have been addressed through a lean startup methodology. Introduce a minimum viable product, see how people respond or interact, iterate based on that experience.
Lean startup practitioners particularly emphasize user research in forms that can occur even before you start building an actual product.
Try Working In A Group Before You Start A Company
While a lean startup approach may keep you honest about your users and progress, it can't really address all the weird psychological aspects of power and money. And if you've worked in group settings with people without a lot of money you know that power struggles can occur even when the financial stakes are really low.
Given the second post by Nemrow, I'm starting to realize that a lot of tech founders may not have any real experience in group work beyond class assignments or being a member of a sports team. Most group class assignments I had in school just seemed to cement people's negative tendencies if things went wrong. There was rarely a process for moving beyond that. Sports team experiences are much better preparation for corporate life than for the startup world.
So if you've got startup dreams but you've never had to make something work over an extended period of time that required others to buy in to your beliefs, maybe that would be a good place to start. For example, a summer group project to support something that you and other people you know believe in might be one place to start.
If you've got an idea, then you'll go through a fairly similar process as a startup. Reaching out to others to get them involved, meeting together and making plans, following through and evaluating the results.
In the process, especially if you've never done anything like this, you'll discover all sorts of things about yourself and others. Hopefully you won't interpret your discoveries as, everybody is all fucked up and I need money to pay them so they'll toe the line."
Ideally you'll recognize that everybody is pretty flawed at the end of the day but some are better at recognizing their own faults and moving beyond pointing the finger at others.
You'll learn some other stuff too that will be of use on down the road when you've convinced folks to give you a bunch of money and you're working crazy hours just to get the basics done.
Cause, honestly, I'd rather learn from small failures with low stakes than wait till everything's on the line and learn all that stuff in one disheartening clump.
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