Nobody is incredibly eager to share their shortcomings, and that hesitance is magnified tenfold in the business community. Breaking through that misplaced hubris is absolutely essential for growth — especially in a fledgling entrepreneurial community like Delaware’s.
But now, as the state’s tech scene is growing, local entrepreneurs are beginning to embrace the concept of failure as an ultimately good and necessary experience — one that should be shared with others and used as an educational tool.
That was the goal of #Failfest, held during Delaware Innovation Week 2015 presented by 1313 Innovation, where Technical.ly brought together six entrepreneurs from across the state to share their failure stories. Though maybe it was an odd choice to lead off with someone who believes that failure doesn’t exist.
1. Paul McConnell (cofounder, 1313 Innovation)
“At the end of the day, failure is a state of mind. It doesn’t happen. There isn’t such a thing as failure,” said real estate developer/tech champion McConnell.
At one point, McConnell was in 150 partnerships (now slimmed down to 125), so the man is more than familiar with how business partnerships can be prone to crumbling. McConnell pointed out a failed venture he had in the 1980s — a $400 million real estate business that blew up because the partners simply didn’t agree on the future.
“Next thing you know, they were in charge and I wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “Was it a failure? Well, it wasn’t fun.”
McConnell said he learned from the rebound. “The key is to address it early. Communication is key. See if you can connect the dots somehow, and if you can’t, work out an exit strategy where everybody can go their separate ways.”
2. Gayle Dillman (cofounder, Gable Music Ventures)
“My business has been all about failure for the first couple of years,” said Dillman, whose company organizes music events such as the Ladybug Festival in and around Wilmington. The first event Gable ever held, Dillman said, was their first “giant fail.”
“We lost money. We lost a ton of money,” she said. “But I didn’t think of it as a fail.”
Then came the second event. Dillman said everything was prepared — the band, the bar, the accouterments — but something was missing.
“An audience,” Dillman said. “I sat in my mostly empty venue and drank the wine we had at the bar.”
Gable’s two biggest failures: high costs and lack of marketing. But Dillman said they remedied those weaknesses through partnerships — that, she said, is what finally got Gable off the ground.
“We realized no matter what you do, you have to be consistent in the product you’re delivering and run your business the same every day,” she said. “I learned not to overspend, to find my partners, to be creative and persistent, and that my best customers were our musicians. They became our marketers.”
3. Mac Nagaswami (founder, Carvertise)
Nagaswami, the young entrepreneur behind Carvertise, which turns cars into rolling advertisements, spoke about misplaced effort. When the company was just getting off the ground, Nagaswami said he made a “very large assumption about data” — that it was the first priority for the customers the company was focusing on at the time.
Turns out, customers couldn’t have cared less.
“It wasn’t the sticking point. That wasn’t how you made the sale,” Nagaswami said. “We didn’t realize until a year ago that we were selling Carvertise based upon the wrong premise.”
It was a tremendous amount of effort in collecting data that, to the customer group Carvertise was trying to sell to, didn’t really matter at all. But Nagaswami said they took the failure in stride and used it as a learning experience.
“It’s not ‘you win or you lose.’ It’s more ‘you win or you learn,'” said Nagaswami. “If you don’t win and you don’t learn — then you lose. I’m sure there are some epic failures coming up in the not-so-distant future.”
4. Katie O’Hara (founder, Katie O’Hara Designs)
O’Hara, who runs her interior design company out of the coIN Loft in Wilmington, also talked about misplaced effort. Her company, she said, spent a lot of time and energy on things that never succeeded — like an online package where clients could create a customized order.
It didn’t pan out, but for good reason — it just wasn’t part of her company’s mission.
“We ultimately spent months and hundreds of hours on this product,” she said. “We took it in stride and realized we needed to place more focus on the markets we wanted to get into.”
O’Hara said she began to implement a stronger focus on the commercial clients. But in order to do that, she needed to fail at attempting to break into the residential space.
“Successful people and entrepreneurs don’t internalize the failure, they learn from it, they take it in stride, and they keep on moving,” she said. “Get comfortable with the fact that failure is going to happen.”
5. Laura Kraman (founder, E-volve Fitness Studio)
“When I started my business in 2009 I didn’t realize that when you fail at something it’s a normal part of having a business,” said Kraman, who owns a fitness studio that integrates personal training, nutrition and wearable technology.
When Kraman partnered with a gym in 2012, she learned the hard way how important it is to have things in writing.
“We talked about having a contract, but we just ended [the agreement] with a spit and a handshake,” she said. “I remember talking to my husband and saying, ‘This guy has good character, I trust him.’ But I remember thinking in my gut, ‘This is kind of a mistake.'”
And it was. When the partnership collapsed, Kraman said she had all her eggs in one basket. She had cut off everything with her in-home clients and put everything she had into her business inside the gym.
“I had no concrete systems in place. They were all based on that gym.”
6. Micah Sklut (founder, Swellinfo.com)
Sklut, creator of the surf forecasting site Swellinfo, talked about how to move quickly while building your company without breaking yourself — a twist on the old Facebook motto, “Move fast and break things.”
“This mindset of moving fast and spending all my waking hours on my website was the forefront of my mind,” said Sklut, who ran his site for eight years before selling it a year and a half ago. “As entrepreneurs, we’re driven, we’re excited about building our businesses, but we need to consider the sustainability of our work mode. Waking up, starting to do coding after breakfast, then doing it until dinner, then going to sleep an doing it again.”
That lifestyle wasn’t so sustainable for Sklut, who said he began to experience some pretty awful health issues.
“We’re not machines, we didn’t evolve to sit in front of computers all day and write code,” he said. “I was having migraines and sinus issues. I was debugging my health issues like I was debugging my website.”
The solution? Staying productive by knowing your limits and staying just below the threshold.
“Step back from where you are and say, ‘How can I be balancing my work/life environment?’ Setting those boundaries is really important.”