The biggest mistake I ever made, and what I wish I’d done instead

Photograph by jurvetson Or, how to reduce risk in innovation, a guest blog by Rachel Collinson.

I’m blushing as I write this. Recounting stories of your mistakes is never pleasant. Especially when it happens in public. Goodness knows I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I rarely talk about this one. The reason? It was entirely self-inflicted. If embarrassing life events were characters in Star Wars, I’d be telling this one “I find your lack of scapegoat disturbing.”

However, I’m willing to sacrifice my pride in order to persuade you, dear reader, that you can succeed where I failed.

Why would I do such a thing? The answer is simple. I’m fed up of seeing charities throw away their donors’ cash in the way I did. Or – and this really winds me up – remaining so scared about taking risks that they do nothing at all.

So, let me crank up the cringe factor to 100%, and I’ll explain.

This tale of regret began while I was doing some consulting for a non-profit client. I hit upon an idea that I thought would be a huge help to businesses across the globe. It was a classic “Eureka moment” invention. My competitors were dinosaurs who had stopped innovating long ago.  Comparable products were few and far between. The commercial potential was vast. Friends and strangers were enthusiastic.

I spent months of work developing the idea, writing business plans, applying for funding, designing a brand, enlisting a mentor and getting the product to a state where it could be tested. Two Universities backed the idea with thousands of pounds in goods and services. I ran positive usability tests, oversaw the signing of countless NDAs by people who were interested in trialling the product, hired a salesperson and built an email list.

I rolled out the product and… nothing.

Not one person decided to buy.

With empty pockets, and a heavy heart, I had to close the project.

The most galling thing of all is that my product was almost exactly  close to the idea behind Doodle. (Although, to be sure, Doodle deserves to be more successful.)

Why did I fail where they succeeded?

I only asked people to hand over their cash once it was too late. I truly wish that I had done that before I started building. As it was, I wasted months of precious resource on a business lemon.

What I’ve learned from this may surprise you. I realise now that I had been seduced by the lie that successful entrepreneurs have to risk it all.

Innovating well actually requires much less risk than you think. The way you do it is to fail as quickly as possible.

No, I’m not drunk, I swear.

Let’s say, instead of opening Word to write a document about my idea, the first thing I did was to describe the product and ask people for actual money up front. Previously excited people would have backed away quietly, mumbling excuses. I might just have given up at that point. It is a big regret of mine that I did not.

Had I then changed tack, I might have ended up where Doodle is today.

So, how does this apply to fundraising?

Let’s say you want to create a new product or appeal that will be the next iPod of the nonprofit world. Aim to create the cheapest possible prototype you can think of. Even if it’s held together with sellotape and elastic bands. Examples might be:

  • Calling random donors, describing the offer to them over the phone, and asking if they would give now.
  • Asking if you could donate ten product prototypes to a charity shop and see if they sell.
  • Use Engaging Networks or similar system to knock up a draft donation page or petition form. Monitor how many people fill it in.

In the world of what is called ‘lean entrepreneurship’, this has come to be known as the Minimum Viable Product. A few minutes of Googling will lead you to a wealth of resources on this topic.

What do you think? Would this approach make you more excited about trying out new ideas, or less? Keen to hear your thoughts in the comments. Or you can sqwawk at me via Twitter – I’m @rachel_shares.

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