You have to learn to crawl before you walk. You have to learn to walk before you run. And if you’re a founder trying to get a startup up and running, you have to fall on your face at least once or twice before you know what’s what.
That was the takeaway at #Failfest: A Conversation In Failure, held Tuesday at the Emerging Technology Centers’ Haven Street incubator as part of Baltimore Innovation Week.
Three entrepreneurs and an author, plus ETC Executive Director Deb Tillett, shared their stories of the nine times they were all knocked down before they each got up.
Krzysztof Sitko once began a DreamIt Health demo day presentation for Aegle with a shockingly honest opener.
“We’re Aegle and here’s how we failed throughout DreamIt Health,” he recalled saying.
The company was formed in pursuit of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, which tasked competitors with building a real-life version of the “Star Trek” tricorder — the futuristic gadget that can diagnose any illness. Incidentally, a fellow team from Johns Hopkins University recently made it to the competition’s finals.
“It was my responsibility to present for demo day, I was looking for basically anywhere and everywhere and I was driving myself crazy,” Sitko said Tuesday. “And by demo day, we don’t have a solution.”
They didn’t have an investor, either. In the end, the company pivoted to wearable health monitoring, sort of the next level of Life Alert and other products advertised in daytime ads.
“What if grandma or grandpa can’t or won’t press that button?” Sitko asked.
McKeever Conwell’s last venture, Given.to, never got off to a good start. At 24, the social gifting company was founded with (by Conwell’s own admission) the unwieldy name Sometimesyouforget.com.
“It was a horrible name and it only got worse,” Conwell said.
The company got some traction late, even striking a deal with Disney to use their social buying technology. Then his programmer left.
But Conwell has no regrets. He said he learned about email marketing and cold calling from founding the company as a young buck.
“Failure sucks and I want people to stop saying ‘fail fast,'” he said. “No, you want to make mistakes fast. I’m comfortable taking that risk. I’m stupid enough to do it again.”
But the risks didn’t come without costs.
“My engagement fell through because my business was my wife,” Conwell said.
He’s now in the Philadelphia accelerator DreamIt Access working on his next startup, the social buying platform RedBerrry.
While the ETC’s Tillett now spends her days helping grow startups, she’s no stranger to failure herself. In the early days of ecommerce, she launched a company called Salonsock.com, offering socks with cut-off toes to keep women’s feet warm during pedicures.
“I list my cell phone number … boom, forget all about it,” she said. Months later, “my cell phone rings, it’s a salon in Philadelphia, the Ritz, they want to order 10 dozen pairs.”
She claimed to be sold out and that it would take a few weeks. She asked around and got 500 pairs from a New Hampshire vendor, sold through all of them and then went to a Chinese manufacturer. The minimum order was 75,000 pairs.
“A thousand years later, 50,000 [freaking] pairs still in the warehouse,” she said, waving around one of the pairs, jokingly offering it for sale.