It’s always great to look at one’s current or past successes, but what about the failures? Every entrepreneur (hell, every person person) has failed at something….even if it’s failing at being humble enough to admit it!
So here are 11 projects from the past five years that I tried to launch, either on my own or with colleagues, that failed for whatever reason. I’ve also included the business lessons I learned from each project.
Afridex (2008 to 2010)
The Idea: Back in 2008, there was little information about the various companies across the pan-African business sector. It also featured micro-format compatible ‘cards’ that businesses could place on their website. Definitely not one that had APIs or fancy design. So I set out to create one by modeling it after Tech Crunch’s CrunchBase. (Photo Above)
Why it failed: There was no clear business model (that I’d identified at the time) and I never came up with a strong enough data acquisition strategy – just because you say you’re going to crowdsource data doesn’t mean the crowd is going to volunteer to source the data for you!
Lesson: ‘Buzzwords’ like crowd-sourcing are usually based on a lot of hard work that is easy to overlook.
A.fricame.me (2010 to 2012)
The Idea: To create Techmeme-like destination site for information on all things tech, business, and policy related in Africa.
Why it failed: To make it sustainable, this type of project requires a lot of time on behalf of the founder. That said, I never cared about making this project profitable but I underestimated how much of my own time it would take to keep it functioning an relevant.
Lesson: Don’t take on side-projects without fully investigating how much time they will take away from your priamry proejcts.
Appfrica 1 (2008 to 2010)
The Idea: Appfrica began as a blog and long-form investigative research site all about what was going in Africa. The goal was to be something akin to GigaOm Pro for the African audience with high-quality blog posts, market reports, infographics and the like.
Why it failed: This eventually worked in the form of other projects (Appfrica still does market research) but it takes a degree of critical mass in demand before pursuing a business model like this. Doing it for no money was too time-consuming and draining to be sustainable. At one point I even hired a few writers, but because there was no revenue, that didn’t last long.
Lesson: Know your customer before you launch a product. And if possible, make every attempt to reach out to them to make sales as soon as (or even before) you start. This is now known as the ‘lean startup’ model, but I assure you that philosophy is as old as commerce itself.
Appfrica 2 (2009 to 2011)
The Idea: In parallel to trying to make Appfrica a successful blog, I was also running a small developer shop in Kampala. The idea was to follow the example of companies that earned their business from corporations in North America and Europe who wanted out-source to Asia. Why not out-source to Africa?
Why it failed: While Appfrica had very high visibility, press, and market awareness at the time, scaling a consultancy is hard.
Lesson: Hire too many people too fast and client work may not come in fast enough to sustain your staff, resulting in your going bankrupt or having to lay off people. If you fail to hire enough people quick enough, you’re stuck with an avalanche of projects, and no one to work on them.
Appfrica 3 (2009 to 2010)
The Idea: In ’09-’10 I wanted to find ways of offering capital to early stage African entrepreneurs. By leveraging profits from our consulting business, and partnering with experienced VCs, we could make investments, or at the very least introduce entrepreneurs to the investors.
Why it failed: Ultimately it came down to my lack of experience in the investment sector.
Lesson: Experience matters. I got better at it pretty quickly. Now Appfrica has found several ways of solving the problem of lack of access to early-stage financing. One is through our competitive funding program Apps4Africa, the other is through our SeedCapitalAfrica fund.
The Idea: A Twitter account that tweeted one fact about Africa each day an and accompanying podcast that shared one interesting fact about Africa each episode.
Why it failed: It was actually quite popular, but my own attention for researching and producing the show is what waned.
Lesson: If you want it to last work with others.
LocaleMotive (2010 – 2011)
The Idea: An ambitious location-based edu-tech startup that aimed to use gamification and parent/peer interaction to improve the way study groups work in the U.S.
Why it failed: While this is still something that I’d like to see done, it was a capital intensive project to startup. I would have needed an angel investor almost right out the gate.
Lesson: Seeking investment isn’t bad, but if even starting your idea depends upon the benevolence of an investor, you may never get the opportunity to do anything.
Status.ug (2009 to 2010)
The Idea: A feature-phone accessible mobile-social network that leveraged mobile money for social m-commerce in Uganda.
Why it failed: Actually, this was a by-product of the ‘Appfrica 3′ experiment in angel investing. Also, I think I loved the concept more than the entrepreneur did.
Lesson: A founder needs to be a founder first. An investor needs to be an investor first. If those stars are misaligned, expect the worst.
Wheragi (2009 to 2010)
The Idea: Location based note-dropping and discovery. Essentially like Foursquare, but using short-codes and natural language so that it could work on feature phones. Also toyed with the idea of doing an Augmented Reality version for development aid workers using smart phones.
Why it failed: I made it too complicated to build by trying to do everything at once. Also, such an ambitious project requires one to show that they can actually execute.
Lesson: No one can ever (convincingly) argue the viability of something that is already functioning and that already has traction. This project had a lot of interest, but I should have started small and got the basics working before looking for funding in a major way.
WeWorkForFree.com (2006 to 2008)
The Idea: Create an online community of artists and graphic designers who sell or donate their art and services to help generate money for charity.
Why it failed: Where do I start? First, artists and designers are already an exploited bunch on the web. Now someone was asking them to compete to give their stuff away for free? Meanwhile our site was going to then auction work, not to make a profit but to donate to charities and do projects in developing countries.
Lesson: A business that means well is not necessarily a business. It needs to mean well, do good, and sustain itself. If you’ve read anything I’ve written after 2008 now you’ll understand partly why that message has become a personal mantra of mine.
The Idea: To create an African Incubation hub (like ccHub, I-Hub, or ActiveSpaces) for the 16 and under demographic.
Why it failed: Too dependent upon the parents ability to afford or appreciate aftercare education for their kids. In other words, the concept though interesting, did not consider the needs of the user (the students and their parents).
Lesson: Users first. Always.
The ultimate lesson in all of this is failure is only a permanent condition if you let it stop you, otherwise it’s a temporary ailment. Keep trying. The horizon only looks like like the edge of the earth, if you keep heading in that direction, I’m pretty sure you won’t fall off. ;-)
So when you email me or call me to ask about how projects MetaLayer, Appfrica, Apps4Africa and/or Abayima have all been so well received, please know that none of those would have been possible without the experience gained from failing so often and and not giving up.