With forming any new relationship honesty is key and, for various reasons, I felt it necessary to highlight how and where I have failed in the past, and provide some reasons why I felt things did not quite work out in the past. Which included;
- Because I was not ready for the projects that I took on
- Perhaps I was too focused on the goal, which made me blind to some of the risks.
- Some projects were below par as the organisation had not achieved "product market fit"
- Other projects started out well, but were doomed because of the toxic culture the senior managers had established.
Learning from Mistakes
While I am not proud any project that did not live up to expectations... I am grateful for some of these experiences, because I sure did learn from them! But the appreciation of this particular form of learning i.e. Learning from a failed venture is something that can be percieved very differently in the US compared with here in the UK.
At the Education Innovation Conference & Exhibition (EICE) I had the pleasure of spending some time with Ed Baker from EdMix, and some of the people from his EdTech startup community.
I attended Ed's presentation which impressed me from the outset, because his opening line to introduce EdMix was to made clear that this is a community of EdTech startups who support one another and share resources - not a Limited Company or PLC, or a quango filled with committees... a community of like-minded people who have an interest in Education and Technology.
We then heard some pitches from member of this community who were doing some really innovative things - the kind of people that Ford would be delighted to have working for him (see section on "Where angels Fear to Tread"). I love groups of innovators like this, and went for a drink with Ed and members of his community after the event.
Ideas Gone Bad... A Badge of Honour?
The discussion turned to various companies who had got investment and done some amazing things in a short space of time, like WhatApp, as well as those that failed to live up to expectations.
Hulu is a video streaming company which had attracted millions of dollars investment but had not delivered because Netflix and Amazon pulled ahead. The managers had to admit that the venture was a failure and our discussion turned to the implications of this and, specifically;
What happened to the people who were given the investment? Did they get run out of town? Did investors tell them that they would never work in "The Valley" again?
I said that research I had done suggested that there are not necessarily any long term implications with failing at your first tech business in the US; in some circles, like Scilicon Valley, this can even be seen as a rite of passage... you don't "earn your stripes" until you've been involved with a turkey - a Tech Turkey.
Permanent Condition - Failed Business
Ed runs EdMixer events in the US and UK, and I asked what the main differences between the "EdTech startup scene" was between the two countries. Ed replied "I think you've just identified it... Failure is not a big deal there... there's no stigma attached to it" and added that he felt things are changing in the UK, but we're not quite there yet.
As I said at the start of this post I have failed in the past, and have learned from each experience. My biggest failures, and the ones with the biggest implications, have been any time I have been involved with the wrong teams or, more accurately, the wrong kind of leaders (what Adam Grant would describe as "Takers" & "Fakers").
You know the kind of people... the "alpha male" "leaders" who are only in business to take what they can get for themselves - but come out with all the David Brent-type management speak about how "They always run with a team" but have no hesitation to cut their hard working "team mates" and employees when their poor leadership has put perfectly good projects at risk. My biggest lesson from these mistakes is that;
Core values matter as much as ability.
This is something that almost every leadership expert who I admire agrees with including;
Ernest Shackleton - "Determining a man's disposition and character were of utmost importance, and matter as much as ability"
Dave Logan (Tribal Leadership) - "Stage 5 teams identify Core Values... then align these values to a noble cause"
Jim Collins - "First who, then what"
Adam Grant - "That successful people are "givers"
Dave Feinleib - "Investors debate about what matters more to them the market or the entrepreneur...some ague the market is more important; other invest in great teams"
Based on my experiences and the consistency of this message from these leadership experts, I would rather work with a great team who have a bad product, than a bad team with a great product - Because the great team will get to the source of their bad product, whereas the bad team will canbalise itself through in fighting etc.
With regard to Feinleib's comment I would argue that the team is the most important thing... but then again I'm biased - I worked with was a company that had apps on student PCs before Apple did... But poor leadership through a lack of vision and focus saw this opportunity get squandered.
The discussion with EdMixer and the other startups turned to the question of
"Why would investors give a team tens of millions of dollars instead of getting your own team to develop the idea?"
I think that's the point when making an investment... The right team can be worth the investment, as much as the idea, because the developers are worth their weight in gold.
The biggest problem with these teams is that they can be so rare that you can wonder if they are mythical... As mythical as Jack, the founder of Bean Stalk Inc, who found the magic ingredient that allowed his business to grow rapidly, which allowed him to get close to the giant of his industry, managed to disrupt the way the sector did things and knocked the giant off his feet.
Great teams who are intelligent, nimble and have a shared vision and core values are able to unsurp the sleeping giants. But teams like this are as rare and valuable as the goose that lays the golden egg so, when investors do find them, maybe that is why they are happy to invest millions... Because the culture they create is both a licence to print money and/or change the world (depending on the founders and investors priorities and core values).
If you read my blog and hear on the grapevine any organisation who has plans to grow and head into the clouds please let me know. I'd like to spend some time with a team who is actually on the way up... as opposed to leaders who have their head in the clouds with visions of grandeur, when in actual fact they do nothing but drag their team down.