Devver and other thoughts on failures

Till today, I somehow failed to know about the existence of Failure Magazine. Although most of articles I checked are quite long (like this article about “No Logo” of Naomi Klein that goes for 7 pages) there is much to read and learn about.

What I meant to write about was Devver, a maker of cloud-based tools for making Ruby developers more efficient (code testing, QC).

As one of co-founders, Ben Brinckerhoff, points out:

Most of the mistakes we made developing our test accelerator and, later, Caliper boiled down to one thing: we should have focused more on customer development and finding a minimum viable product (MVP).

They assumed they already got their MVP and focused on further developing their products at the expense of loosing touch with existing/potential customer base. He admits that:

Our mistake at that point was to go “heads down” and focus on building the accelerator while minimizing our contact with users and customers (after all, we knew how great it was and time spent talking to customers was time we could be hacking!).

As Devver focused and developed its accelerator product, it became increasingly sophisticated, eventually “resulting” in setup/configuration problems – the main put-off for many users. When this hurdle was found, they came up with a solution, but again failed to keep in touch with users, instead churning out new features.

Result? Two years and $500K later, the three tech-savvy founders had to fold.

As the saying goes, “don’t fall in love with your product; let your customers do so.

As an article in Business Know-How explains, “key factors that — if not avoided — will be certain to weigh down a business and possibly sink it forevermore”:

  1. You start your business for the wrong reasons (making money is the first one on this list)
  2. Poor management (sometimes management is too techy – case with Devver – or too business)
  3. Insufficient capital (lean startups must be able to avoid this trap)
  4. Location, Location, Location (one of factors that contributed to a temporary suspension/failure of my own startup Elegua)
  5. Lack of planning (this depends on a type of business, but many businesses change/evolve so much from their original vision/plan that they become unrecognizable)
  6. Overexpansion (riding on top of seed/series A capital, hiring frenzy)
  7. No Website (this is debatable – my second startup, GPDoors, has no website yet – I do get leads via WoM)
And even if you fail (as I did and surely will do in the future), remember that:
  • Failure is necessary
  • Failure reinforces the need for risk
  • Success can breed complacency
  • Failure means you’re not alone
  • Failure doesn’t necessarily mean something went wrong
  • Failure can emphasize process, not merely people
  • Failure broadens your thinking

Two business failures == third business success? bubble witnessed many young, bright and entrepreneurial spirits launch themselves into the tech gold rush only to see themselves chasing the fool’s gold. Too many entrepreneurs wound up in searching for jobs in not-so-inspiring companies and earning not-so-high a salaries. But few found courage to continue their entrepreneurial march and found new beginnings, although not necessarily with happy endings. Eric Ries of IMVU, named as one of the Best Young Entrepreneurs of Tech in 2007 by BusinessWeek, is a case in point.

Eric, like many other talented and bright young men in America, had a rather typical start at Yale: have an idea/dream, find a soulmate, work on the idea.

While pursuing a degree in computer science at Yale, Ries took cues from young techies in Silicon Valley who had no problem getting VC firms to back their software dreams. So he and a roommate started, an online database of student résumés, and lined up their own slice of the VC pie. “In retrospect it was not such a good idea for investors to give money to kids who just barely knew what they were doing,” Ries says. “They were just throwing money at these companies. But when the bubble burst we had no chance.”

This first idea failed along with ideas and dreams of many others in the same lot. His next go?

Soon another lesson would begin. Ries describes as a “traditional VC-model startup,” characterized by high fixed costs, a focused marketing strategy—and an underdeveloped sense of what consumers want. “They start a marketing buzz and a beautiful PR launch,” he says of the strategy too often pursued by startups, included. Ries rattles off other hallmarks: blow through cash by bulking up on staff, hire a vice-president of marketing “and the burn rate keeps growing.” The trouble is, “they never tested if there would be immediate consumer adoption,” Ries says. Worse, the company couldn’t easily adapt to change, he says. “It was rigid and top-down.” Neither Ries nor Harvey lasted long.

The second time failed as well. None of the two did not seem to be a killer startup and couldn’t not wither turbulent and volatile tech market conditions. He did not digest well the errors he has made during the first two gos. One pattern he could however clearly see in both of his failures was the perceived gap between the tech strategy and business strategy, i.e. the tech-centered approach versus the customer-centered one.

For Ries, try No. 3 would be a charm. After losing their jobs at, Ries and Harvey began working on their own startup, IMVU. This time, Ries says, the lessons stuck. “I knew I couldn’t just be a tech entrepreneur,” he says. “The tech strategy needs to be determined by the business strategy, not the other way around,” he says. So the company’s first meeting was all about determining culture and values. “Startups don’t fail from lack of technology,” he says. “They fail from lack of customers.”

His discipline, creativity and determination led him and his partner-in-crime Harvey into founding IMVU. This time, he knew well how to organize his startup; he had learnt it a bitter way, but he did. This time he knew well what there was to know about founding a startup, he had two failures under his belt, and he was determined to succeed.

Early on in his tenure as IMVU’s chief technology officer, Ries audited a class at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. The instructor, Steve Blank, was so impressed with Ries’ attention to strategy and understanding of business R&D, that he called Shawn Carolan, a managing director at Menlo Ventures, and advised him to invest. Carolan describes Ries as the guy who would go out and read a business strategy book the moment someone mentioned it.

Fruits of his protracted efforts, failures and unfettered passion for what he believed started showing up, the first sign being almost a lucky strike.

Menlo became a backer, as did Allegis Capital (IMVU also had angel investors). “In the consumer market you have to have humility to admit you don’t know exactly what the consumer wants, so that you can be proactive and test features and make changes,” Carolan says. “Eric has an unusual amount of humility and he is unique as a tech person in his ability to be strategic in his business.”

IMVU showed all signs of success early on. Ries started practicing a lean approach for his own startup. Lean startups are resources-, money- and energy-frugal from the very beginning, and as a result are poised better for sustainable growth and long lifetime.

Part of that strategy was taking the product to the customer for testing as early as possible and keeping site development costs low. had a beta version up and running within six months. By contrast, there hadn’t been a test of in its first five years. To prove that the product resonates with customers, there is a small fee associated with participation, and so far, the test phase has met or exceeded the corresponding financial targets.

Additionally, Ries has helped keep expenses in check by adopting a low-cost, low-risk software development process that maximizes ways to improve the site.

IMVU turned out to be an ultimate success and so did Ries, who is not only a full-time in his own startup but serves on boards of other leading tech boxes like pbWiki, Causes and KaChing.

Now the world is facing a recession, the worst one since the Great Depression. But entrepreneurial world is not necessarily crying doom and end to new ideas and initiatives. While some do, others are more moderate by providing an advice/how-to and still others are outright optimistic for launching a startup especially during this recession.

Make your choices.