My first startup failed! And what I learned from it.
- Reading time: 7 minutes
It was a sunny day in May 2019 when my co-founder and I signed the papers for the foundation of our company. I was thrilled, excited and a little nervous. Would it all work out? I was investing my hard-earned cash into the company to get us up and running. We had a plan, an almost finished prototype for our fuel cell and a lot of optimism in our back pack to get us through the hard days.
Looking back today - a little over a year later - I will start with sharing the conclusion of my first startup adventure: it failed. I decided to walk away, because the way things were going did not align anymore with the values I founded Fellows for the Earth on. My wish to start and launch a sustainable venture became smaller than my desire to keep it aligned with my values.
It was quite a tough decision to take, because I had poured my heart and soul into it. When founding the Fellows in November 2019 my goal was to start and build startups that have a sustainable impact on the world, on our earth. After sending off a whole bunch of e-mails, doing a ton of phone calls, coffees and all kinds of other research I thought I found the co-founder I wanted to build a company with and an idea that could have the impact I was looking for. So why did it not work out then?
1. Focus on the essence and strip the rest away
We wanted to do it all. Finish the prototype, design and build the production line, find a place to establish our business, look for investors, talk with possible clients and more. We had been working together for a couple of months before we officially signed the papers and made a rough division of tasks in all those areas. However, when you are launching a technology startup it all starts with the first finished prototype. You want and need viable proof that (part of) your idea is working. That there is truth in your premise. That the stripped version of your idea down the road shows the world enough potential to hop on that journey with you.
The trap we stepped in is that we were working in all areas simultaneously - leading to small steps forward in each field. But not the big step we needed on the most important topic: finishing the prototype. Our legal structure was ready for the first and next round of investments. We had ideas about how to deal with the IP. We had a gazillion thoughts about the best customer presentation. The lease for our first workshop / office / inventory had been signed (a 3 year contract. . . ). We even had a team of students lined up to work with us on the design of the production line. First question they asked: “Can we see the prototype? So we know what we are building.” We could not give them an answer or show them the fruits of our hard work in the garage of my co-founder (yes, the typical startup garage!). There had been a lot of hard work; but not so many fruits yet. . .
My lesson learned: focus only on the essence. Get that prototype up and running and strip as much unnecessary ballast away as possible. And certainly not engage in (too many) long term contracts.
2. Using your intuition most effectively: how gut feeling & rational facts (can) beautifully intertwine
With Fellows for the Earth my vision is to look for sustainable tech solution in an early stage of their development. Assessing the potential of an innovation in that early stage can be adventurous to say the least. If you would only apply rational hard core financial modelling, you would never get started in the first place. Only following my gut feeling would not give me a comfortable feeling either. What to do then? I guess this is where intuition comes around the corner. To combine gut feeling and rational facts to develop that sixth sense for a good idea.
Looking back on how I did the assessment process, I would apply a more stage gate approach next time. Instead of going all in right away, I would define milestones connected with additional investments or a next step in the commitment to work together. Funny thing is that I actually thought of that when I defined the assessment process for ideas the Fellows would participate in. It is a combination of lean start-up and design thinking which works in many small iterations of building, testing, assessing and deciding. I guess I learn best by doing instead of applying the theory right away ;).
3. The team is the glue of the venture
When I was running a consultancy firm with a couple of friends during my student days I already learnt: the team is the glue of the venture. And it has turned out time and time again that way. I founded this enterprise together with my co-founder. We had already met about a decade ago and got in touch again with me launching Fellows for the Earth. And although we took time in exploring our collaboration, sharing our life lessons & values and formalising our partnership, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A little over a half a year in, we both were not satisfied about the results we were achieving. As in any startup we had experienced our set backs and disappointments. The differentiator in whether you get through those or not lies in the strength of the partnership. I guess in the end it was not as strong as we both had hoped for at the start.
My lesson learned is not a new one either, but an important one to revisit: collaboration is based on a stable relationship and mutual trust. Like in any relationship, that requires work and effort on all sides. In building that from scratch next time, I would give more attention and focus to that. Really take time to assess how everyone in the partnership is doing and make sure nothing goes unsaid. Because that will simmer under the surface until it will come out in a non constructive way later in time.
Having said all that, I could think of many more lessons. Maybe the most important above all is to just do it. Try it. Live it. Breathe it. If you only keep dreaming, nothing happens. Give it a go. See what works, change what doesn’t. And know when to go that extra mile or when to walk away when it does not feel right anymore.
It has brought me towards today: I am out and about again looking for new opportunities and sustainable innovations that deserve to be brought into the world. I will keep you posted on the launch of the next one.
Stay tuned and have a good summer!