When you fail, many people will tell you how failure is a great teacher. And they’re not wrong. But you know what else is a great teacher? Success! And success is a lot less expensive than failure.
About a month ago, my co-founder and I decided to shut down our startup, A Serious Business, Inc., the makers of Abbot. He wrote some beautiful words about it on LinkedIn. Now it’s my turn to write some less than beautiful words about the experience.
Before I get all maudlin about failure, let me say that the experience of building a company from scratch with a close friend and amazing team was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. We built a great company, team, and product. The only thing we failed to do was the only thing that mattered for a startup — obtain product market fit.
I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve encountered so little failure. Not because I’m so great, but because I haven’t taken huge risks until now. The biggest risk I remember taking was leaving my cush high-paying job at Microsoft in order to join a scrappy little startup for much less pay. It so happens that startup was GitHub. In retrospect, not that much of a risk, though it felt like it back then. So yeah, I’ve been lucky. Very lucky.
Back to the main topic, why didn’t we achieve product market fit? I’ve been reflecting on that question a lot, but I keep running into a stumbling block.
By now, most of us are familiar with the idea of survivorship bias as exemplified by the famous airplane image:
For those who don’t know, survivorship bias is the logical error of looking at the survivors (or successes) of a process and drawing conclusions without also considering the failures.
During World War II, military researchers studied the distribution of bullet holes from returning aircraft and wanted to add armor to the areas where bullet holes were concentrated. A Hungarian mathematician (Abraham Wald) suggested differently. He noted that the planes that did not return were not being considered. He suggested adding armor to the areas without bullet holes as it’s likely the reason those areas were sparse in bullet holes was because the planes that were hit there did not return.
I think the same bias occurs when examining failures. Perhaps we should call it Failureship Bias. If that term catches on, you’ve heard it here first.
For example, one question I’ve pondered is whether our tech stack held us back. I’ve said many times in the past that the tech stack is the least interesting part of a company. The product market fit is all that matters in the beginning and later on, the company culture, the ability to sell, etc.
But to reach product market fit, you have to be able to shotgun features at the wall and see what sticks. Fast experimentation is really key. Chris Wanstrath (aka defunkt) tweeted the following today:
I started learning Rails in 2005 and doing it professionally in 2006. By 2007, when we started GitHub, I had already worked on or made dozens of sites. The velocity was a huge part of the appeal - we could create new features fast!
At A Serious Business, Inc. I chose ASP.NET Core and C# because I knew I would be faster with it than any other stack. I helped build that stack. Even so, there is still much ceremony and paper cuts when it comes to the inner loop of development. It may not seem like much, but that shit adds up. For example, compilation and startup time when making changes compounds. I would love to have ASP.NET Core interpreted while in local development. Or interpreted while it’s background compiled.
So did the stack hold us back? Again, going back to Failurship Bias, I can’t run a double blind experiment where another team with the same exact circumstances builds the same exact product using Rails and see if they survive. Maybe some day we can peek into parallel universes and I can see how Bill Maack, the Rubyist, fares.
Having said that, there was another team who built a product very similar to ours and seems to be doing well. They also went through the YCombinator program like we did. Is it their stack that helped them? Or did they benefit from the second-mover advantage? Or is it the fact that all three of the co-founders live and work in the same apartment. In their own words, this is all they do.
Perhaps all of those are reasons why they succeeded and we did not. Perhaps not. I hope that’s not what it takes because I’m not willing to move into an apartment with my co-founder. I love him, but not that much. And his family and my family probably would object.
So what is the lesson I’ve learned from this failure? Well as I said in the title. It really suuuuuucks. But don’t cry for me Argentina. The experience of building a product with wonderful people was its own reward.
And I did gain some ideas that I want to experiment with the next time I start a company. I’m just sober enough to understand that if my next company succeeds, it’s just as likely that it was luck in-the-moment as it was the lessons I learned from this failure. But hey, I’ll take it.