In a 2015 TED talk about the reasons that startups succeed or fail, Idea Lab founder Bill Gross shared his theory on one of his own epic failures, Z.com, an online entertainment company. “We were so excited about it,” he said:
We raised enough money, we had a great business model, we even signed incredibly great Hollywood talent to join the company. But broadband penetration was too low in 1999-2000. It was too hard to watch video content online, you had to put codecs in your browser and do all this stuff, and the company eventually went out of business in 2003.
His conclusion? Bad timing killed Z.com. In fact, according to Gross, timing -- more than idea, execution, business model, or funding -- is the single biggest factor in a startup’s success or failure.
To make his point, he goes on to compare the success of You Tube to the failure of Z.com:
Just two years later, when the codec problem was solved by Adobe Flash and when broadband penetration crossed 50 percent in America, YouTube was perfectly timed. Great idea, but unbelievable timing. In fact, YouTube didn't even have a business model when it first started. It wasn't even certain that that would work out. But that was beautifully, beautifully timed.
There’s just one problem: Shifting the blame to “bad timing,” while appealing in its catch-all simplicity, isn’t correct.
Perhaps Gross employed root cause analysis to reach his conclusion. It’s easy to imagine him working his way through the “Five Whys” with each of the successful and failed companies in his sample group, until he finally got to his “ah-ha” moment: “Timing is the answer!” And how compelling it must have been to have hit upon such a seemingly simple, tangible, solid, overarching concept to blame (or thank) for failure and success.
But whatever kind of analysis Gross actually performed to reach his conclusion -- root cause analysis or some other method -- it seems that somewhere along the way, he mistook correlation for causation, and in so doing ended up making a … gross … generalization.
He’s not alone in this conclusion, not by a long shot: Many founders cite “bad timing” in the post mortems of their failed startups. But “timing” is a big umbrella, and it doesn’t really explain anything. It implies that success or failure is in large part a matter of good (or bad) luck; or the ability to wield godlike powers of prescience. Like other fallacies commonly used to explain or excuse failure, it oversimplifies. While there is an element of timing to a successful product launch, the truth is much more nuanced.
When founders or product managers Monday morning quarterback their failures, it’s comforting to repeat the fallacies and myths that make a particular failure seem more inevitable. But the fact is, success is much more within our control than we may realize.
To understand how to prevent failure, it’s important to unpack and examine the most common myths and fallacies we tell ourselves about it. So let’s look at what is really being said when we play the blame game:
Failure Fallacy: “Bad timing”
In practice, we’re really saying that …
“The market just wasn’t ready.”
Think back to Bill Gross’ explanation about the failure of Z.com. The timing was bad, he opined, because the market wasn’t equipped with the technology to allow his streaming service to succeed. In that sense, yes, his timing was bad. But is that truly the fault of timing? If, say, Tesla hadn’t planned ahead and made sure there were electric car charging stations in place so people could charge their cars, would “timing” have been to blame for what surely would have been a big failure? In fact, the reason for the failure would have been Tesla’s lack of planning.
Rather than blame timing, Gross should blame his own company’s rush to launch. The truth is, if you have a product and the existing tech won’t support its adoption, you have a few options: Adjust your product so that it will be usable; implement a support network so that people can use your product; or wait to launch. It isn’t the fault of timing -- the onus is on you to ensure that you launch a usable product into the market.
Bad timing is also code for: “People just didn’t get it.”
It’s tempting to blame the Luddite consumer for a product failure, but if people “just don’t get it,” then one of three things are really going on: Either you didn’t explain it to them properly; your product didn’t actually fill an unmet need; or your product was poorly executed (or a combination of these things). Once again, it’s your responsibility to launch a product with clear value that people can use and understand.
Tied in with this reason for failure is that of “underfunding.” This is a legitimate concern, particularly if your product’s tech or concept needs to be explained. When the iPod launched, for example, Apple threw a lot of money towards educating the public on this new way to listen to music. Because the iPod filled a need and did the job of allowing people to play and control their own music selection better than any other product to date, it became a huge success. Of course, Apple had the means to fund such consumer education. If your product needs to be explained, part of your business plan should include consumer education.
Failure Fallacy: “The innovation was good, the marketing was bad.”
Assuming that your innovation was actually good -- that it filled an unmet need in the marketplace, and did it well -- then why did you drop the ball on the marketing? While it’s your job to launch a product that fills a need, it’s the job of marketing to convey to the consumer why they should want this solution. As such, it’s your responsibility to make sure marketing is aligned with your product’s purpose.
Failure Fallacy: “There was no room in the market.”
What this really means is that your product was probably a copycat that offered no new value to consumers. It’s likely that you didn’t do enough market research to know that you were entering a crowded market without offering new and better value.
Failure Fallacy: “We were ahead of the curve”
This is another way of saying that the market wasn’t ready for you, or that people didn’t “get” your product (see above), while managing to give yourself a compliment on your forward-thinking along the way.
Failure Fallacy: “We didn’t scale fast enough”
This is a legitimate reason for failure, but it’s also one that can be avoided with sufficient planning. Sure, some knockout products -- Instagram and Pokemon Go are notable examples -- have managed to suffer the growing pains of unexpected demand on a massive scale. And so, if you are absolutely convinced that people will walk over glass for you product no matter how many hiccups occur during scaling, then by all means just … let it happen. But on the 99.99 percent chance that you aren’t the next Instagram, have a plan for scaling up before you find yourself in the weeds.
Failure Fallacy: “We failed fast, so it’s all good.”
Thanks to the prevalence of lean thinking, “failing fast” is the mantra for many start ups. This manifests as rapidly iterating through a repository of brainstormed ideas before launch, and/or as rushing out an MVP -- with the emphasis on the “minimum” part of “viable product.” Many founders believe it’s best to get something -- anything -- out there as quickly as possible, and to worry about fixing problems and pain points with the product as they arise.
When people then abandon the product because of the problems caused by rushing it out, a virtue is made out of a self-created necessity: “Well, we failed fast!”
Much has been written about the fiscal irresponsibility of such an approach, and the ways in which “failing fast” as a goal has become a roundabout way of shirking the responsibility of doing the hard work of market research and tireless product testing from the beginning -front end-. But there’s another problem with the rampant glorification of failing fast: If you start from a bad premise -- if your idea isn’t sound -- failure is almost inevitable. You’ve rigged the game against yourself from the get go.
If you’re working on a product that doesn’t fill an unmet need, or doesn’t improve on the way other products fill that need, ultimately people won't be interested in it. As Jobs-To-Be-Done proponent Anthony Ulwick explains it:
If we are to seek stable and predictable outcomes, we need to control those initial conditions. With respect to innovation (which is the main focus of startups), the high variability of initial conditions stems directly from the high variability of founders’ ideas; or as it’s called in the fail fast world, hypotheses. One could suppose that getting out of the building to test hypotheses with customers (not really customers yet) is better than letting your marketing organization run wild with a bad idea. However, how many hypotheses does it take until you get it right? Is there any guarantee that you started in the right Universe? Can you quantify the value of your idea? I’m sorry, I meant hypothesis.
In other words, if you don’t control your conditions from the outset and begin with a targeted idea that fills an unmet need, the odds of failure are very much in your favor. Ulwick is right to be critical of this sort of ideas-first hypothesizing and testing. It’s the kind of approach that leads to (fast) failure. But rather than accepting this failure and then justifying it by calling it “failing fast,” why not have a little more control over the whole process?
Instead of accepting -- or even chasing -- the notion of failing fast, begin from a solid premise: an innovation that fills a real need. Then, instead of failing fast, you can learn fast -- and succeed.