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My First Startup Failure

How does it feel to fail? Most hate that feeling. It can sting, it can be embarrassing and make you look like a amateur, a wannabe and a talker. Sometimes we try and hide our failures; dismiss them as something that was only an attempt; something we didn't have out hearts in. Part of the negativity may do with the uncharitable attitudes we ourselves have towards those who fail. Failure isn't pleasant, whether its in work or personal life.

In recent years the narrative of start-up scene with respect to failure has gradually shifted from both investors and entrepreneurs alike. Having a failure or two under your belt has taken on a more positive hue, one that you learn and grow from. If you failed in a venture then there was a reason for it, and if you care to admit that reason to yourself, it serves as a personal allegory, an experience you can draw on and hopefully not repeat. Learning from your failures requires that capacity for reflection.

Do you remember when you first learnt to ride a bicycle bicycle? Most children go through this mini right of passage. We all fell off or stalled quite a few times before we learnt to keep going. So what happens to that ability to play without fear when we become adults. Does protection of the ego become a habit that prevents learning through mistakes? I digress...

One of my first ideas for an online start-up came to me when I spent six months on a family visit to the Indian subcontinent. Living in the England where many of the diaspora from my background also reside, I am aware of the sheer number of shops and stores catering for the Asian market and in particular, clothing. My idea was simple enough, to set-up a website advertising custom made clothes. I would have them made by tailors and have them shipped to the UK. All I had to do was to create the site and then watch the money flood in. Or so I thought :) This is not a new concept, there are companies such as and which run an online presence, taking orders for clothes, and manufacturing them for export.

To cut a long story short, it didn't work out, fortunately the venture did not leave me out of pocket. The only costs I had incurred were minimal and limited to the hosting charges for the site I had created. So why did it fail and what lessons did I learn from the experience?

Firstly, the dynamics of the location made the reliability of my tailors questionable. The tailor was a family acquaintance and dedicated enough but he was not short of work. The area has many expatriates with deep pockets and demanding temperaments. Often I would visit him and see female customers pressing him to complete their orders 'first'. I could afford to pay him more and so could they. It would have been better to find someone who didn't have as many options for making a good living as him. Somewhere with little or no expatriates present would have been more suitable.

Secondly, he did not work alone, on visiting the workshop which was situated in a roof space across the road and only accessible via a ladder; I learnt that those in the workshop had various levels of commitment to their work. I heard stories of some asking for loans to pay for funerals and never returning. These 'employees' worked on a per item contract basis for which a price had to be negotiated. My tailor was not in control of the final price of the item on a day to day basis! To make this business work what I needed was a family business. A family business would mean greater dedication and stability of price. I think that it is better to immerse yourself in the business your interested in before you do anything technical, in order to understand it form the inside. Thirdly, I had no customers to begin with. Having potential customers from the start would have given me direction and feedback. I was building something in the hope of 'unleashing' it on the world in the hope that it would just happen.

I haven't let this dent my enthusiasm though and neither should failure affect yours. If anything we have a lot to learn and be inspired by from the failures of the successful.

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