Failing Shamelessly

Customer Development and Failure

We really buy into customer development. It’s helped us learn directly from customers instead of assuming we had all the right answers, it taught us that metrics are just as important as intuition, and ultimately, it helped us discover a problem worth solving.

But along with all the good, there are some bitter pills to swallow. And even though they help us way more than they hurt us in the long run, it didn’t prevent our initial attempts at building a product from being excruciating, demoralizing failures.

Here’s why:

  • Lean embraces failure as a form of learning
  • Lean embraces getting out of the building
  • Therefore, Lean embraces public failure

Public Failure Sucks

When we started learning about cust-dev and putting it into practice, I remember looking at other T.O. startups that demonstrated a tremendous amount of, um, perseverance in their approach to building a startup. I was jealous of these people because it seemed like they had it figured out.

When I talked to other founders, I only heard stories about how great things were going. I saw them hiring new employees every month, putting marketing dollars to work, and being patted on the back by the usual pundits.

Then there was us, heading out of the building with yet another set of wireframes, yet another product idea, and yet another two promises. At first it was analytics for server logs, then a social CRM tool for coffee shops, and analytics for your cellphone, and then it was a competitor to Stack Exchange. And then it was another. And another.

The Doubt

We played by the rules, ran our experiments, and built our MVPs. Every time we thought we had something sticky, we’d get GF’d by our earliest adopters.

The worst part about it was knowing that our peers were making progress while we floundered. They were persevering while we were pivoting, and they were having a blast while we were in The Shits. That’s what my old boss called it.

When you’re in the very earliest stage of a startup, the fluctuations are extreme. Highs are higher, lows are lower, and generally speaking, we had more lows than highs.

The Moral of the Story

Then something crazy happened: We finally discovered our problem. Then we found more people who have that problem. And it turned out that those people are awesome people that we love to serve. A nasty cycle started turning into a virtuous cycle.

I also started meeting more founders, and learning more about what’s really happening inside their startups. I learned that the people I thought were killing it felt just as lost as we did. I learned that press or investors doesn’t equal success.

I learned that even the most confident people had doubts on the inside. And a few of them even told me they admired us for putting ourselves out there, not settling for a shitty product idea, and picking ourselves up and sprinting up the hill.

And it never would have happened if we didn’t repeatedly fail in a very public fashion. So here’s what I have to say if you’re in The Shits right now: Be strong. Fail Shamelessly. Do it publicly. It’s all worthwhile.

- Max Cameron