Fuck up early and often
I was asked a few weeks ago to share my experience at Fuckup Nights Shanghai.
Problem is: I’ve fucked up so many times since I arrived in China in 2005, I struggled to pick any specific anecdote. I decided to not choose and simply tell the many ways I fucked up on my way to creating and growing my company, Wiredcraft.
Fuck up #1: Working for the wrong people
Until 2009, I was the MD of a Canadian digital agency. We had some interesting clients, plenty of demand and went from 5 to 20 in about a year.
One problem though; our CEO was a cokehead. He grossly mis-managed cashflow and put us all in a tough spot. I was stupid enough to keep on working there for more than 4 months without pay, trying really hard to believe things would get better. They didn’t.
In early 2009, we flew to Washington DC for a conference, met with the CEO and let him know we would liquidate his Chinese branch. This didn’t even begin to cover the debt I was owed, even less what was owed to the rest of the staff.
I paid off some of it with my own savings and inherited a couple tables and desktop computers. I hadn’t been paid for more than 4 months, and I now had no saving left: I was broke.
So I started to freelance.
Fuck up #2: Starting my own business
Freelancing was going well and about 2 months in I had managed to round up a couple people working out of my living room (“the office”).
Somehow, I thought that creating my own company, from China was a good idea. Not only that, but mostly working with OSS, focusing on quality software.
Somehow, despite this, we managed to grow to 8+ people. However, I didn’t take care of myself; I drank too regularly, didn’t work out as much as I should have and overall spent most of my time working or stressed out about the business.
I clearly remember signing the lease for my first office; the whole thing was conducted in Chinese and I understood about half of it.
I had no idea what I was doing and it’s amazing I didn’t burst in flames back then.
Fuck up #3: Breaking our business model
We had been using a popular PHP framework and had created a nice niche for ourselves. We had happy customers, a good reputation within this niche and even received a couple acquisition offers.
That’s about when I had the dumb idea to move entirely away from our current stack and start using completely new and unproven technology (Node.js).
While satisfying (and confusing) on an engineering level, this brought a lot of problems to our company;
- We spent a ton of resources retraining our whole team,
- We sunk even more time figuring out things with an unproven technology,
- Most important of all, we struggled to advertise ourself. Nobody was looking for the expertise we were developing.
This wasn’t happy time: we were struggling to find clients or had no idea how to market our services. This effectively nearly killed our entire sales channel.
Fuck up #4: Letting a client fuck us over
In 2010, we started working for non-profits and international development clients. Think World Bank, United Nations etc.
I spent my time traveling back and forth between the US and China. We got to do truly amazing things, starting with creating the software to run the South Sudan referendum. We effectively helped creating the newest country on earth.
I kept on fucking up my health to the point of burnt out. Passed that point it became pretty hard to run the company effectively.
I was still traveling for business but had to increasingly rely on less experienced people on the team to run projects.
It got us to a point where our main client (the UN) mismanaged one of their project, delaying our payment of 150k USD (which back then was most of our yearly revenue) in hope of squeezing some additional work from us.
It got so bad that I had to simply walk away without getting paid. At some point, we had about 5 weeks of cashflow. We almost died.
Fuck up #5: Losing focus
For close to 3 years, I and a few other folks on my team, spent a ton of time trying to create SaaS products. We probably made all the mistakes that you could think of. For the sake of brevity:
- We over-engineered,
- We waited too long to launch, while others successfully took over the market,
- We under marketed (“If you build it, they will come”),
- We took too long to cut our losses and grew attached to zombie projects,
But most important of all, we were trying to build a couple products AND running a consulting business. We didn’t ace either of these.
Most of these products failed. We wasted a ton of time and opportunities in the process.
And then we got an investment offer for ~150k USD for one of our products, along with an invitation to join Techstars.
We went through the whole process; created a C-corp, prepared shares, ran due diligence. And at the last minute, we decided to pass on it. Because we knew our product was fucked up and would need a major pivot to be successful.
Fuck up #6: Breaking our business model, again
Yes: I’m a moron.
After passing on the investment offer, we committed to focus on the consulting business and drop any other project.
And at the same time, we also decided to completely kill our sales channel by drastically reducing our work with non-profits and international development organizations. We wrapped up some of the projects we had started.
Once again, we had no idea how to advertise ourselves, where to find our clients or how to convince them. We had no sales channels, no relevant portfolio and no idea how we’d make it through.
The list is much longer ; just last year I lost 60k USD on a new office by fucking up on the contract, and ending up with a landlord going bankrupt along with our deposit.
But more than successes, failure and your resilience to it is what defines you as an entrepreneur.
Keep in mind the following;
- Most advices people will give you are misguided, inadequate or biased.
- You’ll most likely disregard the advices they’ll give you anyway.
- Mostly, you’ll fuck up on your own. And you’ll get to a point where you’re comfortable fucking up and dealing with it. The trick, I think is to fuck up as quickly as possible and moving on to the next opportunity for a fuck up.
Honestly; stop going to startup events in hope that you’ll become better or more successful. Just go fuck up like a man (or a woman) and figure it out like the rest of us do; by doing.
You can find my slides online.