Technology

Start-up 'funerals' where lesson is business failure

Adam Hawley Image copyright Anushka Sharma
Image caption Backstage, "vicar" Adam Hawley

When it comes to creating imaginative technology start-ups, the British are often criticised for being far too risk-averse. Scared to get it wrong.

Those trying to build companies say this fear is reflected in the levels of investment that can be comparatively minuscule amounts compared to the megabucks dished out to start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Because out in sunny California, where the unofficial motto of "fail fast, fail often" is uttered daily, it's considered OK to try a load of things out, even if it does mean squandering millions of dollars.

Failing is good - your next idea will be better.

But to celebrate failure as some kind of triumph neglects the emotional toll that seeing a business crumble can have.

"It's definitely harder than breaking up with someone," says Shawn Zvinis, who used to run a start-up called Tab.

"It's a little bit further past getting a divorce. I think it's somewhere in the realm of deciding that you're going to pack up and run away.

"That's how you feel - you're the teenager that's run away."

Edgy vibe

Zvinis' Tab was one of the many start-ups launched at Google Campus.

Nestled down a backstreet in east London, Campus doesn't give off a corporate giant vibe - it feels more like an edgy design firm.

"Let's fill this town with start-ups!" hollered Eze Vidra, the Googleite dispatched to get things off to a pumped start, when Campus launched in 2012.

And fill it they did - several floors of eager, excitable hoodie-and-flip-flops types ready to crack on with a good idea.

Soon, the multi-million - no, billion-pound - ideas would start coming, right?

Well, not quite. And that's what the Start-up Funeral was all about.

The good book

Zvinis was was back at Campus to discuss where it all went wrong, along with two other entrepreneurs ready to work humbly through their failings.

The funeral - the first to be held here - was a chance to discuss where mistakes were made, whose fault it was, and what should have been done differently.

Each founder would give something of a eulogy.

But this wasn't a miserable affair. Presenter Adam Hawley was dressed as a vicar, and cracked the odd gag - while quoting from "the good book", The Lean Start-up by Eric Reis.

Image copyright Tab
Image caption Shawn Zvinis, second from left and pictured with his Tab co-founders, went public with the reasons he thought the start-up failed

There was beer and pizza. Solemn funeral music played, yes, but it came via an almost-crude "music for funerals" Spotify playlist.

Essentially, it was a bit of a laugh.

"Sometimes you have to get people in with a little bit of theatre," says Paul Forster, an events manager for TechHub who organised the event.

"We try and make it more interesting for people.

"The value for the speaker is that they get to feed back into the community what they didn't have initially - it's imparting that knowledge that failure isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"It's about saying, 'This is what I did' and 'This is how I did it.'"

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Antifreeze antidote

Forster says that hearing the experiences of the also-rans is in many ways more useful than hearing about success, which is often as much about good timing and luck as it is about great business nous.

Adam Hawley certainly welcomes the sharp dose of reality - it's the opposite force to "drinking the Kool Aid".

"The energy in the start-up scene is creating excellent companies," he says.

"But it's also creating dreams that don't always come to fruition.

"If you've had too much Kool-Aid, you need some antifreeze.

"It's a case of looking at the world for the way that it really is. The dedication, the passion is required - you've got to believe. But you've also got to look at the facts."

It took a while for Travis Lee Street to look the facts in the eye, but when it happened, he says, everyone was relieved.

Even though he had appeared to be on a roll with his fashion start-up Style Gauge, it just didn't work.

'Entrepreneurial rock stars'

"We tried to tell the fashion industry how it should save money," he says.

His idea was a system that alerted people when items of clothing they wanted were on special offer.

Image copyright Travis Street
Image caption Travis Street was invited to 10 Downing Street to talk about his start-up

Not a bad premise. But: "After two years of research, and building products, we just kind of gave up. Let's just live our lives and try to be happy."

Before they'd reached that point, Street was something of a poster boy. He attracted influential company.

"It was kind of like when Noel Gallagher was invited by Tony Blair to 10 Downing Street," he recalls.

"We were invited there because we were the entrepreneurial rock stars of the day, and government wanted to cosy up.

"There's nothing wrong with that, I had a great time, but you need to see it for what it is."

Credibility

Fear of failure stalks us from several directions.

Beyond simply running out of money, there's the fear of having to move out of a home, having no job and a reputation that's now battered. It's natural to worry about people getting hurt, the friends that could be lost.

But the experiences shared at the Start-Up Funeral put those fears into perspective. There was no Kool-Aid to be drunk.

But oddly, hearing from those who didn't make it was perhaps more motivating than hearing from those who had. Failure ended up being the best thing that had ever happened to them.

"'What are you doing next?' was basically the last line in every single email I got from anyone we met in the previous year building Tab," recalls Shawn Zvinis.

"It gives you credibility. You obviously don't want to continue failing - that's not a track record you want.

"But I think if you can walk away from it and say this is what you've learnt, I think the community supports that."

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

  • Travis Lee Street now makes a living "building the online empires of numerous clients with my skills in graphic design, website & brand development, search engine optimisation, photography, and content marketing".
  • Shawn Zvinis is now vice-president of product at marketing start-up Yoyo.

Picture provided by Anushka Sharma

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