Wednesday 23 May 2012

It's good to fail... fast

A little under a month ago, some friends and I announced an offer to launch a free service - free to set up, free to use, free to leave, free of advertising. The service is a way of getting up and running with a modern, social web site - that's the technology - and a community of willing helpers collaborating to get better results for everyone.

It was for a specific niche - UK churches. It was to address a specific, known problem - that (according to a recent study) the vast majority of UK churches don't have a current, active website at all. And of those that do, a small proportion are interactive as well as active - that is, most church websites are brochures to read rather than communities meeting and welcoming others.

We had direct experience (independently of one another) of some of the underlying issues. Many churches struggle making decisions involving expenditure more complicated than buying another box of tea bags. People with relevant skills often feel put upon, expected to do for free what they are normally hired to do, and faced with unrealistic expectations ("you do websites, don't you?" = "I don't care if you're a back end developer, a front-end developer, a designer or an account manager, just make my problem go away, now!"). And the "norm of niceness" that infects so many churches means that everyone knows what they don't want, few will be willing to turn their vague thoughts into definite ideas, and a dominant voice will effectively dictate the outcome.

We didn't think we wanted to tackle those issues - there are plenty of companies selling outdated, proprietary CMS-driven websites to churches, driven by their ability to navigate the particular buying and implementation processes. Good luck to them! Most are well-intentioned, at least, and a few are quite good.

Instead, we saw an opportunity. We're people who know how the technology works and how costs build up, and so we were able to define a technical solution that would cost a few hundred pounds up-front to create, a few tens of pounds a month to run, plus time and goodwill. We decided to build on WordPress, because (a) it works, (b) it has a vast resource base, (c) the software is free to take, use and adapt. We identified multiple ways to create the service, and looked at take-on (making it easy to get people from nothing to something nice-looking and actually usable) and push-off (making it easy to get people off our platform and onto their own or someone else's). And we did technical validation - yes, it works in practice as well as in theory.

So we got to the 'ready enough' point. We knew we could create the service, and we knew our way around the detailed options we would be choosing between. So we knew we could build a real, live service to meet the promise with a few more hours of work up-front, and a reasonable enough workload in terms of hours per week post launch.

So we launched. Sort of.

Specifically, we said we'd launch the live service if 50 UK churches wanted a website for free. To signal this, they had to tweet a hashtag, like a facebook page or fill in an online form. All of these things required a small amount of effort, and we didn't work hard on promotion.

We got into double figures, but nowhere near the 50. So we won't launch. (I predicted we wouldn't!)

We failed. We failed fast. It's good to fail fast.

You can't fail unless you try. Most people talk a lot about things they want to do, very few try to do them.

Until you fail, it's hard to learn. Most projects exist in a kind of twilight world, where the expectations and effort have gone down, but there's still a dream. By saying "we've failed - and we're moving on," you get to look at things objectively.

And when you fail fast, there aren't so many loose ends to tie up. There's no long, painful running uphill, draining your practical and emotional resources to the dregs. So the learning you achieved, you can apply. Or you can choose another venture. Either way, you start with a positive attitude and a bit of momentum, released by being prepared to say, "That's it. We failed. Now, what shall we do?" Well, almost every meaningful success has come off the back of one, several, many failures. The trick is to welcome failure, and fail fast.

Or, as Samuel Beckett said, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."


  1. thanks enjoyable read. I'm also interested in the reasoning behind targeting a specific number of customers? do you mind if I ask if you know how many customers you reached with the promotion? I guess you must feel that you reached at least more than 50 potential customer with the promo and that the % customer interest clearly wasn't there.

    thanks for sharing

  2. I suspect that people are suspicious of anything offered for free. In the secular world there is almost always a catch and it sounds like your tweeting approach did not supply enough information to offset those fears. Strange as it may sound, if you had included a nominal charge you might have got more people signing up!

    1. The open source world is something that takes a little while to get one's head around, but it definitely is something for nothing in many instances. The payback being the joy of having your work appreciate. (oh won't more people please download my fftw wrappers! . They're free, no catch!)

  3. Any specific reason that you didn't promote it? I think if you had promoted it a bit ( like contacting them directly etc) you could have easily got more than 50 signups.

    1. Right, and that's the trade-off. Does something fail because it's a bad idea, or because people don't know about it?

  4. If I had seen this I would have alerted my church!

  5. I've only come across this after you've pulled the plug - and that's despite the fact that I'm (a) a CofE Vicar (b) very active on twitter & facebook (c) an ex-web developer and therefore (d) interested in it!

    As it happens, we wouldn't have signed up, but simply because we have a website (, itself built on Wordpress (brilliant) that we're in the process of rebuilding from the ground up (though, again, in WP) - but that doesn't mean I wouldn't have spread the word...

    If I hadn't come across it, then it's highly unlikely that your target audience (those without a church website probably aren't on twitter and facebook!!) would have done so.

    Not got a better idea for publicity (though an article in the Church Times or CEN would have helped - or how about a link in Diocesan mailings?), but would certainly want to encourage you that it's a great idea and 'failing fast' in this case (though generally a pretty good principle of life!) maybe shouldn't be the end of the story.


  6. OK, so a couple of years on and we're on it again. Just one very belated response to say first...

    One common thread is that we didn't promote very hard. This was deliberate.

    Yes, we could have achieved 50 responses by reaching out directly to people and other forms of promotion. But the test was, is this offer so magical that people who do happen to hear about it either take it up or pass it on. We had enough response to see that this wasn't so, and that was a concrete result to a great experiment.

  7. And there's another sequel. In my view the bits and pieces you need to put together to make this work can still be a bit intimidating for the average non-geek, but the gap is closing. So now there's a podcast to help church leaders get better at all things digital. It's called the Church Free Web Podcast, and Season 1 is all about getting online using free almost everything (the only thing I'm recommending people shell out for is a domain name if they don't have one). The Season 1 intro is here:


It's great to get comments - a good way to encourage, challenge and help me! Thank you. Jeremy