Archive for November, 2010

Until you truly experience failure, it is hard to fully appreciate the feeling.  For better or worse, up until this past summer I truthfully had no idea what it meant to fail. I’ve read enough blogs and posts in my time to learn about “failing fast” and “closing gracefully,” but until this summer, those learnings were a mere façade of the truth.

Now I’d like to be prideful and say that Zodah wasn’t a complete failure (personally, the experience was a learning success), but in the binary world that we live in, it probably should be considered one.  Our goal was to fundamentally alter the way households interact with their bills, and thereby, billers; since we recently shut down operations a few months back, we obviously did not quite get there (update: it turned out we exited to Hearst Corporation instead).  Along the way, there were a few things I did right, however, many more things I did wrong – but by going through these experiences I’ve fundamentally altered how I approach startups, and life.

To best describe what I’ve learned, I’ve created a list of key insights from the last few months at Zodah:

  1. Failure is emotional because startups are emotional; if it’s not, you’re not that invested in what you’re doing. More generally speaking, being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 job, that isn’t actually a job – even if your not building, you’re always working or brainstorming…you’re life becomes the same as your startup. It is an extremely strange feeling, but it seemed as if everything I said and thought had to do with Zodah, days merged with one another, and I literally didn’t spend a night without having dreams (nightmares) about use cases. Therefore, after spending every single minute wrapped up in your mission, realizing it was time to shutdown shop can be extremely traumatic.
  2. Making key decisions requires one foot on the ground and one hand in the sky, or in other words, a balance of realism and unfiltered vision is critical to be a good leader and successful entrepreneur. In the last few weeks leading up to our decision to close down Zodah, I must have flipped flopped a few times a day – to continue or not continue? At this juncture, realism was absolutely critical in helping us make (what now even more than ever) feels like the right decision. However, there were many times along the way where more realistic people (most of my peers) probably questioned our judgment or our plans; but with the recent successes of some of our competitors (and their subsequent interest in our business, our knowledge), it was evident had I not pursued the less sane path, we would have never launched and made clear the gaping holes in the current system.
  3. Runway is absolutely critical, therefore, do whatever is necessary to give yourself a $50K cushion to work with (either through savings or family/friends) before going to far down the rabbit hole. Seed cash not only gives a startup the freedom to purchase necessary hosting space, and hire part-time contractors or full-time hackers, but it also allows for runway – time to iterate and flexibility to test and experiment, while also keeping the food on the table and the lights on. I was recently asked by a friend “what can be done with $50K as a startup?” The truth is if you are building an Internet startup and have $50K, there shouldn’t be an excuse not to have enough to iterate and discover whether or not your product can gain traction. This lesson is not a fun one to learn the hard way…trust me.
  4. Details matter, being anal yourself is better than expecting someone else to get it right. Unlike any other job in the planet, being an entrepreneur requires finite precision and attention to detail both toward your product and your organization / culture. No matter if you are a hacker, front-end developer or visionary it is vital to an early-stage company to maniacally pursue and execute your vision down to the last detail (or pixel in my case), because if you don’t, no one will. The product is what you are selling, it is your job to make sure it looks and performs the way you envision; the company and culture is what you are building, don’t for a second lose sight that this is 100% in your control. I don’t think he knows this, but I thank Saar Gur for his advice here – before we met, I can now say our day to day journey was more aimless than focused; after we met, not a single product or company detail was unintentional. We built a good, clean app, and had it not been for this learning…well, I’d probably not be writing this now.

I apologize for the rambling, but I don’t like being trite. A lot of people claim that failure makes an entrepreneur successful. I don’t think it’s important to fail before succeeding, nor do I believe you always learn by failing. The act of trying, however, is far more important – hopefully you succeed, but if you fail, the act of trying new things and learning via each experiment makes the experience worthwhile.

Update: After writing this post, we finalized our exit to Hearst Corporation. Given the fact it was mainly a tech / talent acquisition, most of this holds true, but I wanted to clarify for those who might be confused.

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