Fail fast or iterate to success

When is the right time to give up on bringing your product to market?

I think the adage of failing fast is overhyped, much like the venture start-up scene. To me, overhyped looks like passing someone in the corridors or on the street and glossing over reality with an “I’m great”, “everything’s on track” or “It’s all fine!” when frankly, sometimes it feels just like a slog and bloody hard work. My peers in our co-working space pass a knowing glance when we see it.

I’m no stranger to things not succeeding. My first company CoderCred was a pre-qualification tool for better understanding the skills and performance of software developers in the hiring process. After 12 months building, deploying and selling this software, I decided to wind-up. The lessons were huge, and there were clear factors as to why this was never going to work.

Me inviting Umano’s fist users

Umano in many ways was born out of these lessons and from this experience. We were confident when we deployed into our first customer trial earlier this year with a global investment bank. We had gone through a six month design process through which they had a seat at the table (along with five others) and provided terrific input. The plan was simple: integrate, get them up and running and then turn our attention quickly to acquiring new customers driven by the lack of external investment and a diminishing runway. Hitting the ‘go’ button for all users within this customer trial was awesome.

That is until the hard work of fighting for share of mind and focus to get them to actually use our product hit home. Early results weren’t great: usage was generally hovering under the 5% mark. We called a working group with key internal stakeholders – team leaders seeking an edge on improving their team’s performance. It was obvious. The vision and promise remained strong; our execution wasn’t hitting the mark. As an analytical platform offering feedback on the way teams work, our users wanted to relate more to the insight we were offering, seeking greater support with their decisions to elevate their team performance. It was pretty hard to hear this after 12 months of conceiving, designing and building. There was a decision point here for our team. The wick was burning out: there were four months to turn around this customer’s experience before a decision to purchase, and a finite capital pool to support operations for the same time horizon. We could cut our losses early and save some skin. Or we could listen, iterate and push back on-boarding new customers until the latest possible time period and take the challenge head on.

The fear of uncharted paths
There’s a lesson here for me in the part fear plays in a decision to stop or continue. In recent discussions with a mentor of mine, we named two types of fear:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed: I can’t cope, it’s all too much, can’t cope, I’ve stretched too far and I’ve broken.
  2. Feeling abandonment: I’m not in the club, everything is going to pass me by, I always miss out; my place is on the side-lines, never the main game.

Often, we flip-flop between both states. So often this can be a blocker to seeing a way through. By naming it we could own what was real in holding us back, and what wasn’t. We also joked that “what’s in the way is the way”; there are no shortcuts, no easy way around. The only way forward is the way through the reality of what we face, even if we don’t know the outcome. It’s OK to stand at the edge of the forest and not see the wood for the trees. In fact, this was a threshold moment to be seen for the adventure it was. The path was uncharted, but by working with our partner to find a new way, to iterate, to stumble our way through was the way forward. Scars may be par for the uncharted course, but they’re also a badge. They honour this stumbling, resiliance and the breaking down of hype to ultimately light up the path ahead.

Powered by transparency and vulnerability
This was not the time to raise the white flag and declare ‘failure’. I took my feelings of being a little battered, vulnerable and exposed and decided to be completely transparent with the team. Explaining the reality of our cash flows for the first time, I offered them the choice – to walk with all support and respect from me, or alternatively to dig deep in getting Umano over the line by responding to the feedback and improving on what we had. This may sound somewhat kamikaze in nature but we had assessed the risks, re-mapped our approach and got busy on the next iteration. Within our small team, transparency and vulnerability won in rallying the troops and refocusing on what winning looks like. No “rah-rah”, just calling reality as it was.

Moving beyond the one-hit-wonder
Musicians among other professions are famous for the way they iterate throughout their creative process. After writing iterating their way through writing volumes of songs, most of their product becomes destined for the archive or dust bin (as evidenced by Prince’s vault of unreleased songs). It is only through the prolific creation of this volume of work do the gems arise. We all know a one-hit wonder never breeds lasting success (sorry Collette).

At dinner on Saturday with friends, we praised the virtues of focus, perseverance and patience. We agreed that there is simple power in just showing up, day after day and keeping laser-like focus on the bigger picture. The creative process takes time, feedback, wrangling, fun and a healthy dose of not taking ourselves too seriously. Continuously iterating, learning and improving: this is the ultimate success for me. It is also Umano’s DNA.

And so what happened to the investment bank trial? Well, we’re still here, listening, learning and continuously refining how Umano elevates the performance of their software teams. Oh, and we just landed our next customer, off the back of a much better product.

Chris Boys is founder and Managing Director of Umano

Top photo by Mikito Tateisi on Unsplash