How I failed three times


Four years ago I decided it was time to quit my job and do “something” on my own. I wanted to create my own business. Today I craft Geek T-Shirts, I have written a book on Zen Programming and code Time & Bill. Those are just a few of the things I do. I consider myself a freelancing programmer and well, mini-entrepreneur.

In the past four years I have made mistakes which cost me a lot of time…and money. Each hour counts when you are a single-man-show. Here are three of the traps I was falling into. Most likely they will not be the last.

Fail 1: The Idea Guy

The idea guy told me about his fantastic idea. He already convinced a former colleague of mine of which I thought he was not easy to convince. Because of that, I took some time and listened to his idea in the first year of my entrepreneur life.

He said, he wanted to create “some System” which connects “some other Systems”. It had something to do with E-Commerce. I told him that the word “some” is not really anything which I can work with. So we discussed further and further, and at some point we had an initial goal of the system. It was an EAI type of thing and I drew some high level drawings. However I was sceptical. Once I captured the idea, it did not look so innovating any longer.

My former colleague dropped out of this project pretty early because he became seriously ill. I didn’t think about it that much, which I should have.

Some further research revealed our initial goal wasn’t that innovating. I was surprised because I thought this research had already been done. In fact, there were multiple solutions addressing this; one even from Microsoft. I told the idea guy about my findings and that it would not be worth the effort to start competing with Microsoft at that point.

He complained. He was frustrated. He almost screamed. Then he said: “No, no, you got it all wrong! Microsoft is doing something different!” I asked him, what the heck “something” meant. He told me we need to be more flexible! All of the following concrete proposals I submitted were rejected because they were not flexible enough. No further input. Just that.

At this point I accepted that I was in the idea-guy trap. A person with some kind of idea without the capability to express something. So I had to somehow quit this and accept a loss of some hours. Not too much at this point, but I thought it couldn’t be much worse and I was happy that I made my bad experience early on in my entrepreneur life.

Fail 2: The Untouchable

A year after that I met the idea guy, I felt pretty convinced that I was able to identify future idea guys. I knew when my brother-in-law told me about his idea for a mobile app, I should run. But I didn’t. I mean, it’s family, right?

I listened and found that the idea actually wasn’t too bad. It was a system to let customers order drugs in their favorite pharmacies by just sending a photo of their recipe. It was a small, focussed niche project, and back then similar things were not available. My brother-in-law was a pharmacist who just bought his own pharmacy. He told me about the tons of contacts he had and wanted to re-think the pharmacy-business.

“What could go wrong?”, I thought. And then I spent two months building the mobile Android app and it’s web counterpart. I showed the app to him and all seemed well. The plan was to approach the potential customers early and organize some type of event.

However, and unfortunately, my brother-in-law suddenly had lots to do. His pharmacy was more work than expected. He told me that he had to relax in his free time as he was really working hard and was simply unable to do more. That involved organizing the event, contacting his colleagues and even helping with some text on our website.

It was the point when you want to strangle somebody with your own hands. Why didn’t he tell me that earlier? Why did he wait until I had finished the app? And why do people always believe my time is less precious than theirs?

When we met last time, I didn’t say much about it. It’s family right? Once again I heard about all his problems and visions. I learned that some people are untouchable like the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.

Now I run away from people with protective labels like “family”, “friends”, or even “neighbours” when ever they start a sentence with “I have a good idea for an app…”.

Fail 3: The Worshipper

When I thought I could not be fooled any more, my biggest fail hit me like a truck.

A company reached out to me to freelance for them. I had a colleague whom I liked pretty much. We had a good and open relationship. He told me that he was running a company aside from his day job, which was pretty successful. He said we could bring it to the next level with some technical love. I got the opportunity to join and was impressed that the company already generated a constant income but with less work. It is no doubt, with the right technical approach this beast could grow (I still believe this). At the same time it was clear the company would not exist in five years any more, if nothing would happen. Competition is hard.

Because of that he told me early in our partnership he was happy to have such a competent person like me on his team. And the company would be in my hands. Without me, everything would be doomed. I try to be agnostic to such manipulative comments, but to be honest, I was very motivated to improve the company.

It started to change my mindset. I started to feel guilty when I worked on my other projects.

I proposed a first version and wanted to make it really, really good. I am still convinced about the architectural concept. But it was really a huge beast and a lot of work to do. My partner was so excited, like me. He told me that this would not only change the company; it would disrupt the market. I was excited to hear such positive comments and despite that it would be long and hard work, I started with coding that thing which would change the company so much.

With some distance I could have started a little smaller. This would have meant we would have to rewrite some things at some point, but we would have achieved our first goals much quicker.

It was freaking difficult to build the software; more difficult than expected. I had no time for proper planning or estimations. I had a day job, family to take care of and my colleague with a constant stream of ideas and visions.

My colleague wanted a full-featured software with version 1. I just wanted to push this to live and then iterate. For some reason we could not agree on what version 1 would be. I tried to cut down complexity, but it eventually led to frustration.

The situation worsened when my partner quit his day job. He told me how long he could survive. Now I was not only responsible for the product or the company, but now I was even responsible for him. At least he gave me the impression it would be the case.

I completed a first version like I defined it. With that, I realized that I was no longer having any fun with it. Each line of code was painful to write. I had my own problems. I didn’t need more. I was tired and exhausted. It took me weeks to decide that I wanted to drop out. And finally I quit.

That hurt. I had invested much more than 500 hours in this project. I asked my partner if he wanted to buy version 1 and work on it with another developer. But he didn’t even bother to reply to this. He just wished me a bright and shiny future. Suddenly it felt as I would awake from a nightmare; just that I have lost so much time without getting anything back.

Time to move on. New fails are waiting, and maybe one day a big success, too.

Tags: #failure #entrepreneur #business