How (not) to launch a start-up – 2 key lessons learnt through failure

Posted on June 13, 2012

It’s easy to be flippant about failure and I hope that I am not being that!

I also know that writing about start-up failures is not necessarily a new topic for the blogging world. However what makes this post different is that this one is about a personal experience straight from the man that made the mistakes himself. I think it’s fitting to start my blog off with this post. Not only because there are some really valuable lessons to be learnt and shared with you, but also from now on, whatever I post going forward and however harsh it might sound at times, you will know that I have experienced the bitterness of failure myself and am therefore able to both empathise and objectively review a situation.  The following is a brutal account of what I got wrong at the start of one of my ventures and the 2 key lessons I want to share with you.

My project wasabi, hard as it is to admit, has not been the roaring success I had hoped for and I have nowhere to look but inside for that.

So what was it all about?

I’m a skier and I like to go into the backcountry – that is, for those not as fanatical about it as I, away from the crowds and pistes to “wilder” parts of the mountainside. So I started to look around for companies doing this back in 2007 and there were very few, and those available weren’t that flexible. So sparked the concept for wasabi. The idea was that I wanted my holiday to be mine, not some package that I bought but actually something I had constructed. But how does this translate to the web?

The amazingly talented Buzz Usborne designed and built a beautiful looking site, and the back end functionality was built by the meticulous Johan Garderud. They came up with the concept of dragging and dropping holiday elements into a box to create your package, enabling you to build your own holiday from scratch and including all the specific activities or accommodation options you wanted. At the other end I would use my global supplier network to put these packages together and make them a reality for you. Additionally, on the site you could then save your holiday packages to your own account, review past trips you’d been on, embed videos and photos from these adventures and share it all with your world. It was awesome! The site was tactile, interactive and fun, a great user experience and remains more innovative than a lot out there in the same sector.

Below is a screenshot of the homepage:

This was further added to by constant work both on and offline from the amazingly talented Nicole Fornander (well, now Tucker – it was cheaper to bring the design in-house!) who created numerous pieces of collateral like this awesome t-shirt:

Not forgetting Tiny Dog Films who stepped up and provided me with an incredible ident for online video content:

Suffice it to say I had the brand and the creative expertise behind me to succeed. I also had my own experience of 3 years in the industry running ski trips in locations across the globe, building them from scratch for corporate groups. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all these guys publicly for the amazing work, generosity and sacrifice they made for me in creating this brand. I’m not sure I can ever repay you properly.

Sadly, on this occasion, it didn’t work and that was my fault.

Lesson one: clearly define your product and your proposition

The original launch was due for December 2009, in time for the winter season 09-10 and still way ahead of the game in the backcountry market (I would argue we still are/ would be). This launch simply didn’t work, it quickly became obvious that the fulfilment side of the product just didn’t stand up to the test. In essence wasabi went too large, too soon. I had got carried away, in my youthful exuberance and passion for the product, and not looked at it all objectively. The world is a bloody large place and I couldn’t possibly know all of it well enough to run holidays in this manner. Even with a comprehensive network of suppliers which I had, this was still a tough ask. So it was back to the drawing board with the concept.

I decided to take the next season off, allowing me to really think about the proposition and how it could work. I spent a lot of time (and a bit of money) researching the market, the growth areas and the opportunities. I had learnt from my first failure, lack of definition in my product proposition had caused me problems. I had defined it by activity type (skiing or winter holidays), but I had not narrowed the field enough to focus it (backcountry skiing). I had also started too large, so from a supplier relationship point of view I was unable to build strong ties with a small number of key suppliers, funnel my business and efforts towards them and then build from there once we were better established. I wanted the world and I went for it too early on.

The following season (2011/12) I decided to come back with renewed focus. The product became backcountry only (beforehand we had been less explicit) and the options for the adventure construction were smaller. I had narrowed it to core locations around the globe and a core set of activities. I had a more settled partner network and a much better fulfilment process in place to ensure a quality and consistent product was experienced by all holiday makers. I also threw myself into it full time, it was not something that was going to work as a part time role. So with the bit of cash I saved up, a better idea of my product and a whole heap of hustle I got back out there with wasabi.

Lesson two: clearly define your most valuable customer segment and focus your energies on them 100% to begin with

I had learnt a lot from my last attempt, and this time I was much more focused. I networked with the industry, targeted key partners for promotion and spent a lot of time building up my social media presence and following. My Facebook page grew steadily, my email database was driving traffic to my site (but not necessarily growing rapidly) and I even managed to get to the big UK ski shows in London and Birmingham with a promotional stand. To all intents and purposes I was “making it happen”. But was it working?

Below is the traffic for the year January 2011 to January 2012:

Interesting to note that it was around the end of October that I was away from the office for about 3 weeks travelling to the various ski shows. This took me away from the day-to-day work I have been doing to build traffic and write content for the site. I then matched this with the goal completions for the site as below (in this case a goal completion was once an adventure had been created – in essence an enquiry):

It correlates pretty well, the evidence suggests that it was working and I was starting to get the results I needed. But sadly this wasn’t the case and this is where lesson number 2 comes in. I had now made the major error of targeting the wrong audience.

I had targeted an audience of keen skiers and boarders between the ages of 20-29yrs old, and I had done that successfully. I was building a great buzz and driving good engagement with the site and connecting with new partners all the time. This audience was responding to me and I was even driving a number of decent enquiries each month. Sadly they couldn’t afford the holidays I was selling, I needed to be going for an audience that was 10 yrs older than the one I was reaching. A fundamental error and one that came thanks to a lack of real hands on foresight, planning and segmenting my market properly.

I understand the ski market, I know what drives it and what people aspire too. But I didn’t segment this market properly. I didn’t identify who my main audience was, how I should target them properly and ultimately where I was going to make my money. Sure the audience I was connecting with loved my products, brand and content but they were aspirational backcountry skiers and not the active ones. If they headed to the backcountry it would be under their own steam and not thanks to a tour put together by my outfit. They loved the idea, but could never afford the reality of what I was selling. This was my error!

A quick look at my referring traffic sources shows the mess my targeting was in:

I’ve highlighted the 2 affiliates I had actively set up and who were the closest to “my customer” as I got. I had set up more but these were the only two that showed up on my referral list for the year. They are pretty far down the list of referring sources, with a large number of referrals coming from web design sites. A testament to the amazing work from Buzz and Johan, sadly not useful for me.

It is worth pointing out that we can see a huge proportion of traffic was coming direct to the site. This means the largest % of traffic was from people typing in to their browser which shows life wasn’t all that bad and something I was doing was working. But overall, the new traffic from people that didn’t necessarily know about the company was not coming in at a sufficient rate to succeed in the long run. I would argue that this is (or would have been) fine as a profile of traffic for a start-up if I had been converting enough of what was arriving. But that was not occurring.

By the time it got to December 2011 I had run out of money to keep me going, the books were not looking healthy enough for an Investor to come on board and so I had to make the tough decision that it was once again time to call a halt to wasabi and this time it was likely it would be for good. Lesson number two – clear customer definition, segmentation and targeting is essential to keeping the start-up going in the early days.

In the early days for a lot of start-ups you spend your time defining your business model, building flywheels for the future and gaining traction in your niche. You need time and effort for most of this, that goes without saying. But you also need regular cash flow to keep the bills paid and give you the lifeline to get the flywheel moving. When you get the fundamentals wrong like I did it can quickly fall apart (even when it seems like it’s working).

So that is how I learnt 2 of the most fundamental lessons the hard way. I’m not naive, I had read a ton of books, delivered what I thought was a viable plan and felt I was in a good position. Sure there were other things that didn’t help me:

  1. I could have negotiated harder with suppliers for rates, although with no history of sales it was difficult to get more than I did.
  2. The site in many ways lacked the essentials for a tour operator – thin product pages and lack of clear pricing. Partly a tactical decision but I could have done more.
  3. My content strategy should have been more varied to allow me the better zone in on the type that would have ultimately connected with the right audience.

But those were contributing factors, the main trouble was I didn’t properly define my audience and in failing to do that I didn’t maximise my time properly and set myself up to fail in the long run.

It’s not all doom and gloom though and I experienced a lot along the way. I hustled my way to the ski shows, pitched to a room of 70 investors in a Dragon’s Den style situation, taught myself a load about online marketing and business (which led me to enrol in the IDM Course), and ultimately I have taken these lessons forward into my next ventures. After all, once you’ve been bitten by the bug of entrepreneurism it doesn’t let you go.

I’ve recently just finished recruiting some new team members into my marketing department at Distilled. Every one of the interviewees were asked: “Can you tell me a time when you’ve failed?” and no one was employed who couldn’t put forward one. You see, in my opinion, if you haven’t failed then you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough and so will ultimately never properly succeed. I like Facebook’s motto “Move fast and break things“, I love premise behind point 2 especially in this article from TJ Sassini and I really respect the attitude Distilled takes on “failure”. Fail fast, fail often and fail by design – it will make you, and everyone around you, better!

I leave it for Michael Jordan to sum up for me: