Learning From Failure: 4 Lessons From a Decade of Entrepreneurship
I wish someone had told me to learn first what I learnt last…
Lesson #1: Nobody Gives a F*** About Your Product
In my early days I was absolutely obsessed with product.
I thought if you built an amazing product people would hear about it just through osmosis.
And because I was so excited about it, it was all that mattered. It had to be successful.
I labelled myself the product guy:
I loved products. I was obsessed about every aspect of user experience, quality and design.
But when I found a technical Co-Founder to build my first product with, there wasn’t a sudden rush of sales.
I didn’t have the overnight success they advertise on the cover of Forbes.
It was silence…
You could hear the crickets chirping in the ether.
This didn’t just happen overnight…
Instead, I made that stupid mistake of building something without validation, without a market, without demand. And doing so over a relatively long period of time.
I was an idiot.
My only saving grace is that I didn’t have The Lean Startup back then.
But you can bet that I wasn’t going to make that same mistake again.
Lesson #2: Learn to Sell
Before starting a new business, I realised I needed to know how to sell.
I was quick to consume every book I could find on sales until I was ready to Glengarry Glen Ross any motherf****r that I could get through to.
I had a mentor teach me to cold call prospects and source leads.
This changed everything.
I didn’t have to build a product, I could sell someone else’s and make good money doing it.
People would even pay me to book meetings for their sales guys.
It was easy money.
I hated it!
I wanted to sell products I loved. I wanted to be my own boss.
I had to go back to the drawing board.
It was time to build a new product.
Lesson #3: Great Products Have Pull
People will tell you to validate your products first.
So the next time I started a company, I started by asking people what their problems were.
I’d propose a solution, ask the customer what they thought? Whether they’d buy it?
And if the answer was “yes”, I’d go ahead and build it.
But a simple “yes” isn’t enough.
You have to qualify customers. Because just listening to them can be dangerous.
Building a business is tough. So when you find someone willing to listen. Someone who likes your idea. Their compliments can be deceptive.
You have a subconscious bias to hear what you want to. So when you’re working on your business, building what you think is an amazing product…
And someone says something nice like “I’d buy that”.
Suddenly, you think you’re on to a winner. But ask them to pull out their wallet and you’ll quickly learn whether or not they’re just flattering you.
The only way to know whether people will pay for a product is to ask them to pay for it.
And the very best products…
Are the products that people will kick your door down to pay for.
These are the products with “pull”.
This is a hard lesson to learn.
I was lucky enough to fall into products that had more pull.
And I didn’t even realise this until recently.
In fact, it wasn’t until I listened to Eric Ries on Below The Line talk about how “great products have pull” that it was like an epiphany for me.
He talks about Facebook as an example and how in the early days students were calling from universities practically begging Facebook to open up to them.
All the while Zuckerberg and the others are busy building other products…
Zuckerberg himself doesn’t realise what he’s created. He thinks his new file sharing app is going to be the next big thing.
And it’s actually Moskovitz that challenges everyone and forces them to focus on this thing that people are begging for.
That for me is one of the best stories about how biased we can be when building products.
For those of you who are interested you can listen to the whole podcast here. I think Eric frames it in a much better way than I can from my own personal experience.
The fact is:
We sometimes reject the product that’s pulling us for the sake of the products that we think are going to be big.
If you’d told me a few years ago that great products have pull, I wouldn’t have understood that because I didn’t yet have my own experiences to relate to.
And only now do Eric’s words have any meaning.
Lesson # 4: M̶o̶n̶e̶y Marketing Over Everything
I dread to think how much I’d have made if I’d placed more value on learning marketing earlier on in my life.
Even if you can find a product that has pull and you know how to sell it.
You will still never scale without learning to market that product.
I learnt the hard way.
I’ve had my BSc, MSc, MBA and PhD in business over the last decade.
And no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t scale my business past a certain point.
Now, I’m sure if I had the patience to wait another ten years I’d get there by doing what’s already working.
But I’m not patient.
And whether you’re B2B or B2C, learning marketing is the best decision you will make for your business.
- You will be able to validate products faster and more effectively than anyone else
- You will be able to create demand for your products
- You will achieve scale faster than otherwise
Now any time I start a new business I’m always thinking market-first:
Do I have the distribution for this product?
What’s my cost of acquiring new users?
Ask yourself these questions before you waste time building a product.
Try selling your product to an audience before you build it.
It’s natural to think product-first, but thinking market-first will save you a lot of time and money.