Accountability. Usually that's a euphemism for 'blame' or 'Whose ass do we kick?'. It also ultimately points out a culture's way of trying to avoid being the person taking the brunt of the responsibility for a bad project or decision that they didn't have complete control of.
But in the case of startups, you do have complete control (yay!) of all of the moving parts, and you get all of the kudos and accolades when it is successful. Conversely, should the startup come on hard times and fail, you also get all of the blame and criticism that comes with having been in control. With Startups, you can control every factor of the company, and it's like a drug, a wonderful wonderful drug.
With Present.io, I interviewed customers for months during development to find out key features and use cases. We lined up early-field-trial (EFT) customers before the product was complete so we'd have real feedback from real-world environments. We reached out to peers and analysts. We added and changed features based on early field trials. We had demo units out at most of the local major companies. We did insane amounts of competitive intelligence analysis. I did face-to-face or web demos of the product to over 100 different people in the course of a year.
Meanwhile, I was also working with others to launch StartupCity, StartupIowa, Plains Angels, and what feels like a hundred other things. In hindsight, in that flurry of activity, I somehow switched from building something awesome with Present.io to "avoid failure mode". Erin Rollenhagen coined this term in her blogpost "Can't Get No Satisfaction" this weekend:
"When we were building TableNabbr, in the beginning it was all creativity and ideas and trying to build something awesome. Then we launched, and as happens with a new product, issues arose. We were stretched pretty thin trying to keep Entrepreneurial Technologies (the consulting business) clients happy as well as continue to build TableNabbr, and very quickly TN shifted to Avoid Failure Mode. Avoid Failure Mode can appear to be very productive for a period of time. It causes people to work long hours and expend a lot of energy. But the energy is all being directed at patching holes rather than creating something beautiful. There is no joy in perfectionism. Eventually, the enthusiasm you had for the beauty of the original plan is lost in the struggle."
And by unconciously switching to Avoid Failure Mode, Present.io, and I, failed. I wasn't patching holes as Erin was with TN above, but I wasn't able to convert the eval units and demos to paying orders. We were spending money each month on hosting (the developers had agreed to work 100% for equity, which I feel remarkably guilty for in retrospect), and had no revenue to offset. All of our many conversations with hardware designers (to build more customized and cost-reduced hardware) were gated by the lack of real-world customer feedback. I agonized for months about how to create some sort of entrepreneurial defibrillator to shock Present.io back into life, and relevance.
I could easily have left it as a stalled startup, just parked like so many startups we see every day just sitting inert. This would have been incredibly easy for me to do other than justifying to Janene how I was spending the money each month with no revenue.
It would have been a lie to myself, my wife and kids, and the Iowa startup community I have spent the last four years trying to help build. If it's failure, you face the failure, and you learn from it. That's how you learn, by trying and failing. Ask Edison. After 60+ products in my 25+ years in this industry, this is by no means my first failure, just my most personal and visible one.
And like any good entrepreneur, I will get back up, rub some dirt on it, and get back in the game.
To make sure that this effort wasn't entirely in vain, I am planning on hosting a Startup wake at StartupCity on Friday at 3pm to walk through what worked and what didn't work in the hopes that any of that experience can be of use to people developing their companies right now. I hope you can join us if you are in the area. I will do my best to not be defensive, but I'll need your help to set the right tone for this first wake, so we can hopefully face our failures, and learn from our failures, as a startup community moving forward.