3 High-Quality Lessons from a Failed Startup

In May of 2018, I joined a small team focused on a goal: removing the pain from a complex process involving multiple stakeholders. Despite the startup's closing, I've gained a few insights that might be of use to others.

Customers Are Everything

Our initial conversations with customers were promising. Everyone agreed the problem we were addressing was painful indeed.

Energized by this discovery, we built a tool that would enable our customers to remove most of the pain we had identified.

We had many potential customer conversations and even ran a pilot project.

But when we launched, sales did not materialize.

What I Learned about Customers

This lesson is a simple one. A customer is someone who gives you money.

No one in the company would have felt we needed this lesson, but we did. We listened to potential customers and ran too long on the hints of interest they showed. The Lean Startup method might have helped us. But this lesson is harder to learn than it might seem:

  1. Everything starts with vision and ends with a customer
  2. How long a project needs to be vision-led depends in part on its complexity
  3. Selling to a customer means putting our best foot forward
  4. It is difficult to determine when you're ready to sell, because software is never finished

Vision Is Vital

It is easy to pin the blame of missing the market on visionary leadership, but the reality is that most startups fail. The cost of shaky or unclear vision is high. Our startup had a remedy for a real pain point. Our tactics aligned with our vision.

Our team was a success because of clear vision:

  1. We incrementally improved our product to match the vision
  2. We optimized for adaptability to respond to what we learned as our vision clarified
  3. We worked as a unit in alignment to our purpose

What I Learned about Vision

Vision needs give way to the voice of the customer, but vision is indispensable. Without vision, paralysis-by-analysis rules the day. Fear of failure haunts every decision. I would rather follow a visionary leader than a timid, fearful one.

Visionary leaders need competent voices to interrupt their vision with reality. This is not the fault of those with vision. Followers need to know when to run with a vision, and when to ask questions and challenge assumptions. This is a difficult balance—wisdom is required.

The Team Is (Also) Everything

Let's get to the heart it all. A business is a team of people working toward producing revenue through value creation. Teams bond with clear vision, and our sense of purpose brought us together. Teams collaborate to reach goals. Teams connect us with life-long relationships and knowledge that enriches us.

We found and hired people who shared the vision and gave every ounce of their talent to realize it. That was a success!

What I Learned about Teams

There is nothing better than knowing your team has your back. I am humbled to have been part of a company whose leadership believed in and supported their team. Each team member played an important part, and they are some of the finest human beings I have ever known. After it all ends, all we have is friendship.

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