As entrepreneurs, we’re all familiar with the phrase “fail fast”, but what does that really mean? And how do you put it into practice? In addition, what is a “pivot”; can it be done without abandoning everything and starting over?
Failure can take many forms. It could be a feature, it could be product-market fit, it could be the business model, the choice of a cofounder, a hire, or the whole idea of starting a business in the first place. Fail fast does not apply to all of these categories. Let’s break it out.
Let me start with the things that fail fast does not apply to. If you do a lot of market research, are passionate about an idea, start a business with your best friend, work at it for a time, but struggle to get the business off the ground, does that mean you should fail fast and shut the business down? Of course not. Most of the world’s biggest businesses stumbled around for a while before finding the right formula to take off. As the CEO of a very successful company once told me, “It took me 10 years to become an overnight success.”
Similarly, if you are building a business and things are going great, but you don’t get along with your CTO cofounder, do you just jettison them and find a new person? Maybe not; building a successful business can be stressful, and you should invest the time to work on your relationship with your CTO. If you don’t, you’ll hire another one and have the same problem with them soon enough.
Fail fast isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It’s an approach to running a company or developing a product that embraces lots of little experiments with the idea that some will work and grow and others will fail and die.
Not sure if your product should require users to give a lot of information before starting to use it? One approach would be to talk to a lot of people, get all the different points of view, assess their opinions, decide what to do, schedule it on the product roadmap, develop and test it, and then release it. Or you could just get something out there and if it doesn’t work, fail fast, pivot, and try something else.
Can’t decide if your target market is group Fortune 500 CEOs or soccer moms? You could do a market analysis, talk to stakeholders, conduct focus groups before going to market. Or you could just try it out, and if it doesn’t work, fail fast, pivot, and focus on the right group.
Agonizing over the unproductive inside sales person you hired? Give them one more chance? Give them more training or coaching? Wait until the product is more mature to remove customer objections? Maybe. Or you could realize that you made a bad hire and that you should fail fast, pivot, and move on.
These are examples that illustrate a way of doing business day-to-day, week-by-week. It’s not a meta view, it’s an approach. Develop a culture of experimentation, be willing to try stuff, do it quickly. But if it’s not working, be willing to fail fast and pivot.
David Brown is Managing Partner of Techstars. He is a serial entrepreneur who has founded three startups and been involved with two others. He cofounded Techstars along with David Cohen, Brad Feld, and Jared Polis. He has been an investor and advisor to Techstars since inception. In 2013, he joined Techstars in a more active role as Managing Partner. David was previously one of the original founders of Pinpoint Technologies, Inc. which is now part of ZOLL Medical Corporation and provides solutions to the emergency medical services market. He was president of the company from founding through over $50 million per year in revenue and over 250 people.
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