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

Photograph by jurvetson

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.




Are you proud to be a fundraiser?

charity fundraising

In my experience, when you tell people that you work for a charity, or that you are a fundraiser you get one of two reactions.

The first is that people look at you in a strange new way, their eyes fill with love and admiration, like they are seeing something wonderful in you for the first time. They think that you must be a really lovely person. How could they not have noticed this before?

How ‘nice’ that you devote your life to doing good for others. They often will tell you about a charity they have donated to, or volunteer for, in a way that seeks your approval – because they want you to think that they are a nice person too. You can almost hear their minds whirring with questions. Sometimes people say what they are thinking out loud,  (always dangerous in my experience) its often the question;

‘How can you afford to live in London if you work for a charity; that means you don’t get paid – right?’                                       

With a heavy heart I explain that generally charities employ paid staff that work for them ‘like a proper job’ especially some of the larger charities. Volunteers are incredibly important in supporting the charities work and fundraising, but that if someone says they work for a charity then that normally means that they get paid a salary.

People are generally intrigued by this. Often some of the wonder disappears from their face as they realise that you are not the altruistic individual that they previously thought. You just get paid to do a job.

The second reaction when you tell people that you are a fundraiser is a look of anxiety and fear, usually followed up by a cautious look round the room for someone else to ‘rescue’ them if required and a raised eyebrow as they enquire,‘ You are not one of those chuggers are you?’ They then talk about about all the charitable donations they make, that they have no capacity to give more than they already do, the time that they and their friends and family have spent volunteering, some recount how they did actually give to someone on the street once, but more usually I hear a story about a bad experience with a money grabbing ‘chugger’.  Often I’m asked if I know that some of them don’t even work for the actual charities! – outrageous.  One day they could be asking for money for children and the next day for animals! Shocking.

With a heavy heart explain I am not a chugger, so they do not need to fear that I am going to somehow extract money from them. Then I tell them how ‘street’ or ‘face-to-face’ fundraising raises a lot of money and gets new donors on board which makes a significant difference to both the children and animals and other causes too. We discuss how its ok that people are specialists in this sort of fundraising and raise money for a range of causes. I try and help them understand that it’s a real skill to approach people in the street, and while not all street fundraisers are created equal, its a tough job, and that if done well raises significant money. By this point the person has labelled me as the ‘chugger defender’ and is desperately trying to get eye contact with someone else who will happily agree with them on the topic.

Has anyone else had this experience?

It would be much easier not to bother to explain how charity staff are generally paid and that ‘chuggers’ are not the lowest life form, and other misunderstandings that crop up time and time again in conversation about the charity sector. As fundraisers, part of our role is to help people understand how charities work and be proud of the jobs we do and the sector we work in. After all if we don’t do it – who will?

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