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5 Ways to Fail
Web 2.0 Expo '09: Panel of 2.0 entrepreneurs hash out the most common routes to failure, paths to recovery, and acceptance of "I Can Has Failure."
Posted Nov 28, 2009
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New York-When Ben Huh created the Internet phenomenon pet-parody site "I Can Has Cheezburger," he encountered a number of people questioning his decision to invest time and money in a "cat blog." However, Huh's passion for the project kept him going, plus a number of failed attempts in the past helped guide him to what can now be called a "Win." Four Web 2.0 entrepreneurs joined Huh on the stage to talk about failure -- what it looks like, why it happens, and how it can be avoided.

Huh framed the discussion with five common ways companies fail:

1. Trying the same thing.

If you expect different results but keep trying the same thing, that's the definition of insanity. "You tend to do the polar opposite [after something fails]," said Micah Baldwin, the chief executive officer of TakeComics, the seventh startup Micah has been involved in. Baldwin recommended rather than doing the exact opposite of what didn't work, try to take the middle-ground approach. Huh said a common statement he hears is "My traffic isn't growing." When Huh asks how long this has been the case, he said he often hears a year or more. "This isn't Field of Dreams," Huh said. If something isn't working and a lot of time has gone by, try something new.

2. Assume you know it already.

Be prepared to accept some sort of failure with the mindset, "I don't need to test or ask other people," Huh said.
Charlie O'Donnell, the founder of Path 101, a startup company focused on career discovery on the Web, said that it's blatantly obvious when a startup hasn't told people about its idea.  "Go talk to at least 15 people in the industry," he advised. The panelists all seemed to agree that there's no point in keeping a business idea "hush, hush." "If you don't have people to trust with your idea ... you're heading into a lot of uncertainty," Huh said.

Baldwin added that not only is telling people your idea necessary to keep on track, but it's also a good gauge of your positioning. "Every time I explained what I did," he said, "I looked at someone's face to see if they got it." Baldwin said that it's never too early to start explaining your ideas. In fact, he said it took him at least seven times to describe his concept of his digital comic books company to Marvel Comics. "Failure is an iteration process," Becker said. "It's a series of successes and failure."

3. Fail to love those who love you.

People tend to fixate on the negative -- and the Internet is a cesspool of hate, Huh said. In his personal experience, Huh faced dissenters trashing his idea of running a "cat blog." But he kept pushing forward with his concept. "We ignore naysayers and chase those who like us," he said.

Making fun of your users is definitely something you don't want to do, Huh said. Rashmi Sinha, the co-founder and CEO for online presentation site SlideShare, stepped forward with an anecdote about how not to joke around with users. On April 1st, Slide Share concocted an April Fool's joke where they added two digits to everyone's presentation view counts. Then they sent users an email announcing their popularity. They also told users to Tweet about their spike in views with the hash tag #bestofslideshare. That way they could see who had fallen for their joke. A few hours after sending about 2,000 emails, the co-founder announced that the joke wasn't going too well. Not only were some users upset to learn they didn't actually get a spike in slide views, but some had forwarded the congratulatory emails to business clients. SlideShare had to blog an apology. "It's good to learn people are using us in business-centric ways," Sinha said, "But we will not be doing any more April Fool's jokes."

4. Fail to add diversity.


Dissention within a group is a good thing. Huh said that he once worked for a company that failed with some of his best friends. "We were selling a product no one liked but us -- to different people than us," he said. Lane Becker, the president and co-founder of community site Get Satisfaction, jumped in with a mention of his former involvement with an organization in which he butted heads with a coworker about almost everything. "It forced us to consider every decision," he said.

5. Failing to get back up.


"This is the biggest point," Huh said. "You can fail, but if you don't try again, you're a loser." Baldwin pointed out that it really all boils down to what you hear as a child: "If at first you don't succeed, try and try again."  Several of the panelists recalled instances of talking to successful people. They didn't find their success stories quite as impressive without instances of failure.

"Each time I failed, whether it was small or large," Baldwin said, "I refined my understanding of what success was and what failure was."

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