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We didn't think we wanted to tackle those issues - there are plenty of companies selling outdated, proprietary CMS-driven websites to churches, driven by their ability to navigate the particular buying and implementation processes.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."