Failing Lean (Lean Ignite NYC talk)

Giff Constable Aprizi, startups

How to talk about failure without killing the mood of a room? That was my dilemma leading up to last night’s amazing Lean Startup Ignite event (and I loved the Ignite format!).

Lane Halley suggested that focusing on what I would do differently next time would keep it positive, and I hoped that my drawings could help lighten the subject matter. (to be clear, I am not depressed about shutting down Aprizi. The hardest part was making the decision, but it was the right one)

The video from the event’s 14 talks should go up soon, but for those who are interested in the content, here is the presentation (note: the actual words are a bit longer in some sections than my final delivery):

Today I want to talk to you about failing lean. I spent about 15 months bootstrapping a startup called Aprizi up to about 10 thousand actives a month, but had to wind it down in April. Ultimately we ran out of time.
So by failing I don’t mean fail fast. I mean fail-failed. Kaput. Put a bullet in it. Old Yeller.

Now, throughout the process we tried really hard to follow the lessons of these two scruffy guys from Silicon Valley.
Yes, I am talking about Eric Ries and Steve Blank. We got out of the building. We learned, built, tested and pivoted. We started lightweight and on paper and built more as our confidence grew.
It didn’t stop the sky from falling on our heads. We were not able to raise funding for many reasons, but today I wanted to talk about a few of the things I would do differently next time around.
First, I would focus on revenue much earlier. I’m not dogmatic about this for everyone, but I do have a hypothesis that New York investors want to see clear virality or clear line to revenue. Vision and engagement are not enough.

Unfortunately, I made a bet to focus on engagement. I thought the biggest risk was whether people would love the product, have fun with it and become passionate about it. We ended up having great engagement numbers, but the biggest risk to getting funded was not having proof points around revenue.

(Extra note: we grew from 2K to 5K to 10K monthly uniques, but it flattened once we started consulting and stopped working for growth. Aprizi wasn’t insanely viral and I question now if I wasn’t too optimistic and not ruthless enough in really questioning our performance. That said, we were pivoting in our hunt, and towards the end it became hard not to focus on anything other than survival.)
Next time I’m going to do a lot more prep work before I actually go full time. I’m a dad with two kids so ultimately I had about 12 months to make this thing work, which isn’t a lot of time especially when you pivot three times.
We got excited about the promise and early validation, but it’s just the reality of my situation in life that I need to have accomplished and learned and validated a lot more before “starting the clock”.
Next time, I want to be able to build far more pieces of the product. I don’t *think* it would have ultimately changed our outcome if I had been able to do JavaScript or Rails, but I would have been personally happier.
I did the design and CSS which took me partway there, and let’s face it, I will never be a brilliant programmer, but there are always lots of little things that don’t take a PhD to fix. It is just a no-brainer that the more you can contribute to the flexibility and speed of the product, the better.
Along these lines, next time, if I tackle a truly ambitious tech goal, I need to start with more than one technical co-founder. In some ways, what Liz and I tried to accomplish with two people and favors from friends was lunatic.
We would have been fine if our first idea was the right one, but we could not move fast enough to get far enough with several pivots.

I won’t deny that I sometimes got frustrated at stories from angel-funded lean startups about all the great iterations, lean startup stuff, and multiple shots at goal they could take and do with more resources, but those are the breaks and part of startup life.
Next time I do a startup, I’m not going to pitch VCs until I have clear compelling results that I think investors care about. Brainstorming and networking with them is fine, but you have a limited window to be “on the market”.
I don’t really think that here in New York, learnings and lean startup count as acceptable results.The West Coast bloggers write about sharing your learnings and process and how helpful that can be in raising money. I didn’t feel that at all – as a matter of fact, my learnings slide probably got the least attention. Being “lean” earned us a degree of respect but nothing more than that.
Another thing I’m not going to duplicate is consulting to bootstrap. In a few situations there is magical alignment between consulting work and a startup, but in so many cases it is a disaster, especially if you have any sort of time pressure. I knew this already, but we couldn’t help it. In February and March with the specter of death looming above us, we took some project work to pay the rent and keep things going.
But the multi-tasking and context switching killed our productivity. I felt like we were not doing a good job for either the startup or the client. Our momentum ground to a halt, and our timelines became completely untenable.
What am I less certain about? Analytics is one. While we measured a lot of basic stuff, we did not do the same level of quantitative work and A/B testing that others do. I really focused my efforts on the qualitative side.
I think that our best leaps came from talking to people, watching them, and reading their body language, and so I think this helped us avoid the local optima problem. But I wrestle with what we could have done differently and better.
Finally, what I really don’t regret is trying to be as lean startup as we could. We weren’t perfect at it but gave it our all. There are funded companies out there trying to do things we pivoted away from, but I don’t regret our decisions, and suspect that many of them will be spending a lot more money to learn what we learned.

After 6 startups, I am trying to get smarter about both when and how to start *and* stop. A startup is a race to build something truly of value to world. It is also a race against time. I lost this race, but am better for it. Thank you.

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