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If the Shoe Fits: Lessons From 178 Failed Startups

Friday, November 18th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mYesterday we looked at how dangerous it is to substitute what-we-wish for what-really-is and I promised you a look at startups that died as a result.

Which is what I’m going to do, but not by reinventing the wheel (there’s enough of that without a contribution from me,)

CB Insights put together a great list of 178 failed startups — why they failed as told by their founders or, occasionally, an investor — including links to the full articles.

I hope you take the time to read through, especially those that parallel your own markets, circumstances, etc.

Save the list as a reference; the lessons learned could keep you from stepping in the poo now or somewhere down the road.

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: Is It Really Failure?

Friday, October 28th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mA post on Medium from Alexis Tryon considers something that many entrepreneurs face, i.e., if your company fails are you a failure, too? She puts it like this.

If Alex = Artsicle
& Artsicle = Failure
then Alex = Failure

I saw this happen decades ago during every downturn and each resulting layoff. It happened to many people at Enron and other corporate debacles.

Not just to founders/executives/managers, but to workers at all levels.

And I spent enough time coaching, encouraging and working with them that I coined a term for it.

I called it ego-merge.

I’ve written about it several times, how to avoid it in 2010, not making your company or position your identity (which is what Alexis did), along with a way to combat it in 2013.

As bad as ego-merge is for “regular” people, it is much worse for entrepreneurs.

That said, they also have a psychological advantage in dealing with it, since if they didn’t have more-than-normal grit to start with they wouldn’t have become entrepreneurs in the first place.

Also, real failure isn’t about getting knocked down.

It’s only real if you don’t get up.

Hat tip to CB Insights for pointing me to Alexis’ post.)

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Words of Encouragement

Thursday, August 11th, 2016


I only have time for a quick note before my plane lands, but I wanted to share two quotes that have helped me keep going in rough times.

The first is something we all know from our own experience, but it always helps to hear it from “names” who have already pushed through and succeeded.

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe. — Sumner Redstone

The second is something that every entrepreneur will swear to, although it would be nice to have summer vacation as we did while actually in school.

There is no education like adversity. –Benjamin Disraeli

Judging from these words of wisdom, I will be phenomenally well educated by the time Quarrio is a huge success.

Plane’s landing; back to work.

Golden Oldies: ERing Means Progress

Monday, February 8th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time. I recently read an article in Inc. on a better way to move yourself forward then setting goals or making resolutions and it reminded me of something I wrote back in 2009. Same idea; different language. Read other Golden Oldies here.


I write and talk a lot about what happens when you choose to change your MAP through awareness and the resulting boos to your energy and creativity.

What I can’t remember sharing with you is a critical ingredient in the change sauce that I call the Philosophy of ER.

I consciously developed it formally and have shared it for decades to offset all the talk about failure when people are working to change.

First, you have to understand that I don’t believe in failure; I don’t think that someone has truly failed unless they’re dead. As long as they’re breathing, the worst bums on skid row have the potential to change, i.e., the possibility is there, even if the likelihood is not.

For decades change has focused on setting goals and if they aren’t achieved as stated, then you had failed.

Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of people (including myself) whose self esteem was at best badly bruised, at worst like Swiss cheese.

They started by telling me how they had failed at this or that, but in more detailed discussions it turned out that, although they hadn’t achieved their stated goal within the deadline, the goals and deadlines (one or both) weren’t exactly reality based or had changed along the way and not been restated.

To be valid, goals must come with delivery dates, but those dates must be achievable—not easy, but achievable.

When you set goals without taking into account minor details, such as friends/family/spouse/kids/working/sleeping/eating, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Beyond being reality-based, we all need an ongoing sense of accomplishment, especially for that which can’t be done in a few days, to sustain the long term effort that big goals take—thus came the Philosophy of ER.

Over the last couple of decades I’ve ERed almost everything (even when it’s grammatically incorrect).

  • I may not be wise, but I’m wisER.
  • I may not be rich, but I’m richER.
  • I may not be patient, but I’m patientER.
  • I may not be skinny, but I’m skinniER.

You get the idea.

So start ERing today and tomorrow you too will be happiER, smartER, healthiER and successfulER.

Just keep reminding yourself that to err is human, but to ER is divine.

Try it. You can do a lot worse than adding some ER to your life!

Image credit: Warning Sign Generator



Entrepreneurs: Emily White

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Emily White

Emily White is a long-time friend of mine.

We met at the end of the last century over our startups.

Like me, Emily isn’t a twenty-something-guy-in-a-hoodie.

She founded OnlineHR, one of the earliest social networks, in 1999. Then 47, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

Emily is back with a vengeance as an entrepreneur, although she never really left. She reached into her past to pay the bills, while searching for her next startup idea.

In search of that next unidentified problem and solution, White returned to social work 30 years after earning a masters degree. Working for five organizations—all of them related to geriatrics, a personal interest and expertise—over the course of seven years, she “saw the problem was in care transition.”

In doing so, she also tapped into her passion for better senior care and combined it with technology to find a viable, affordable solution in the booming healthcare arena.

All of that led her, at the age of 61, to two 20-somethings, both MIT graduates, with a big idea. In 2014, White joined GeriJoy as co-founder and vice president of strategic alliance. GeriJoy is a tablet-based chronic care management and virtual caregiving tool backed by real health advocates. Bottom line? GeriJoy leads to lower hospital readmission rates. (…)GeriJoy has already successfully reduced emergency room readmissions for users and, in tests, had good results with people who are experiencing various forms of dementia. The combination of a human interface and artificial intelligence puts GeriJoy at the forefront of healthcare tech start-ups.

Contrary to popular media, nearly a quarter of startups are founded by the over 55 crowd.

Leaping in to entrepreneurialism as an older adult, White is not alone. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, 1996-2011, 23.4 percent of American entrepreneurs in 2013 were people between the ages of 55 and 64, up from 18.7 percent in 2003.

Read the full story here.

Image credit: Emily White

Staying Relevant

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015


Staying relevant is crucial for every functional group in today’s business landscape.

Relevance has nothing to do with being outsourced and everything to do with being necessary to the operations of the enterprise.

Customer service is often outsourced, but no one questions whether it’s relevant to the company’s success.

IT has been outsourced, but now its very relevance is under attack.

This fight is different.

It’s called devops (a contraction of development and operations)

It’s the hardest kind of fight to win, because winning means a major change to both IT process and its cultural DNA; a totally different way of thinking that is based on what has always been anathema to traditional IT — breaking the system.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst explains.

“It’s not a market. It’s a culture and process, in the same way Kaizen or lean manufacturing is process. The problem is that vendors are making it into a market by saying ‘Here’s my devops product.’ But there are no devops products,” Whitehurst says. (…) “If you make a lot of changes, you’ll have to accept a few failures along the way. Throw out planning. Try little things and if they work, do more of them and if not, do less of them.”

So, no devops products, no new markets for vendors to exploit and no definitely no outside experts to do the heavy lifting — although there will be plenty claiming to de devops gurus.

But if there is anything to be learned from companies like Microsoft it’s that cultural change doesn’t come from the outside nor is it changed by edict.

“You start with small, iterative improvements. You release [changes] early and you release them often. That’s what devops is about. It’s a cultural shift. You recognize that big change is hard but little changes are easy. But a whole lot of little changes add up to bigger changes.”

Change is hard, but in this case, change equals survival.

Image credit: N@ncy N@nce

If the Shoe Fits: What is Failure?

Friday, December 19th, 2014

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mWhat is failure?

Is it having a startup/project/marriage go left instead of right?

How many times can a person fail?


Failure in the startup world has essentially become a non-event, since that outcome is more likely than success.

According to research by Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer in the entrepreneurial management unit at Harvard Business School, 30 to 40 percent of venture-backed start-ups blow through most or all of their investors’ money, and 70 to 80 percent do not deliver their projected return on investment.

However, I believe that you can only fail once.

That’s because the only failure I recognize is that of not trying again.

Also known as quitting.


Image credit: HikingArtist
Image credit: BK

Ducks in a Row: Killing Creativity

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013


According to brothers Tom and David Kelley, founders of the iconic design firm IDEO, everybody is creative no matter what their background or career path.

“…early failures, defeats and setbacks can lead otherwise creative people to shut down their own best ideas.”

If you accept their reasoning and your team isn’t as creative as you would like the fault most likely lies with you.

The “early” in the above quote can refer to early in life, but also early in tenure.

How often have you hired someone with a track record of creativity only to find them carefully coloring within the lines?

That’s usually the result of having creative ideas rejected, arbitrarily shot down or, worse, ridiculed—not once, but over and over.

Even when those negative responses are from a team member, it’s still your responsibility, since the culture that makes acts like that acceptable is either sourced from or condoned by you.

Flickr image credit: liz west

 Entrepreneurs: You and Henry Ford

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Henry_ford_1919When you think about great entrepreneurs who comes to mind?

Not Steve Jobs if you limit entrepreneurs to those who invent something brand new; he didn’t invent technology; he took what was there, infused it with brilliant design and then convinced us we couldn’t live without it.

Bill Gates? Larry Page and Sergey Brin? Larry Ellison? Mark Zukerberg?

But could you build a powerful company culture off just their quotes 100 years from now?

Actually, will entrepreneurs even remember them in the Twenty-second Century?

But a century later you can do it off of Henry Ford quotes and it would be not only sustainable, but socially responsible.

Consider this small sample

  • There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible. Ford practiced what he preached, too.
  • Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right. This may be true for all of us, but it is especially true for entrepreneurs.
  • Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. Overseeing each of these stages is a perfect description of a founder’s primary responsibility.
  • Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal. This isn’t to say that you should be blind to them, but keeping your focus on the goal allows you to overcome them by not losing track of what’s really important.
  • A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large. Tony Hsieh has proved this in spades, as has Jeff Bezos. The difference is that Hsieh also practices the first principle above; while Bezos has ignored it.
  • Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. The first half of the sentence has been proven over and over, but it is the second half that determines whether the effort is successful.

Parts of Ford make a great role model, while other parts should be treated as poison, which, in the long-run, merely proves Ford mortal.

(Find more Ford quotes here.)

Image credit: Wikipedia

Are Entrepreneurs and Managers Different?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013


Not long ago an entrepreneur with whom I work and I disagreed. He said that entrepreneurs and managers were different and that while entrepreneurs should be managers managers couldn’t be entrepreneurs.

A study using brain scans from MIT professor Maurizio Zollo seems to back him up.

…when entrepreneurs performed explorative tasks, they used both the left and right sides of the frontal parts of their brains, the entire so-called pre-frontal cortex. In comparison, managers tended to use primarily the left sides of the frontal part of their brains. This is an important difference, as the right side of the pre-frontal cortex is associated with creative functions involving high-level thinking (like poetry, arts, etc.), whereas the left side is associated with rational decision-making and logical thinking.

But I still don’t agree.

Zollo isn’t sure either, but thinks that it has to do with the willingness to take risks.

People who just reason with the rational and logical part of the brain might be a bit more risk averse.

Or perhaps that’s more Pavlov’s dog and a conditioned response.

I’d like to see the right/left brain activity of managers at companies known for innovation, such as 3M, Google, and Jeff Immelt’s GE, as opposed to Jack Welch’s.

That would be much better comparison of apples with apples instead of with oranges.

Companies that focus on metrics often lose their innovation mojo.

Managers who work for companies that focus on innovation, have done away with fear and celebrate failure think differently.

Flickr image credit: Nathanial Burton-Bradford

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