One Entrepreneur’s (Failure) Story
Identifying the Problem
Imagine showing up for your first day at a new job. Your boss takes you to your desk and says, “Just so you know, you’ll be expected to purchase all your own equipment and supplies: your computer, printer, and paper.” Who would want that job? Well, that’s the job public school teachers in this country show up for every day. Two years ago, I set out to change that.
I started by interviewing teachers and parents. I researched the state of public school funding and learned how most states have still not returned to pre-Great Recession funding levels. I analyzed the ways that schools currently raise funds to purchase educational materials and supplies for their classrooms, and uncovered great inefficiencies and outdated methods.
My research resulted in an informal business plan for an idea called simply.fund, a platform that leverages the power of crowdfunding and social media to make it easy for teachers and PTO members to raise money for much-needed classroom tools and supplies.
In order to test the feasibility of my idea, in January, 2016, I attended Babson’s Entrepreneur’s Boot Camp—an intensive, week-long immersion into venture creation. The Boot Camp class had 25 participants. Almost half of the participants had traveled to Wellesley specifically for the program. They came from Nigeria, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Thailand and the UK. The class comprised many different kinds of entrepreneurs and ventures, from several former NFL players considering entrepreneurship now that their professional football careers had ended; to a business school professor from Mumbai hoping to establish an innovation district in his city; to a physician from Minneapolis with pain treatment centers providing alternatives to opioids.
This incredible diversity of thinking and ideas, along with the instruction from Babson faculty, helped me to uncover aspects of my idea that needed more evaluation, and encouraged me to test my idea with a larger sample of potential customers.
“Why would a teacher use simply.fund, when they could just use GoFundMe?” a Boot Camp classmate asked me. It was true that I did not envision any technological innovations with simply.fund. At its core, it was going to be a basic crowdfunding platform. What simply.fund was going to provide was a service innovation: a faster and easier way to set up a campaign with fewer steps, designed specifically and solely for school fundraising.
Would that be enough to lure teachers and parents away from the 17-year-old Donor’s Choose and GoFundMe, the world’s largest social fundraising platform? My own gut instincts, mixed with a good dose of entrepreneurial hubris (a necessary trait to starting a business in the presence of such overwhelming failure rates) reassured me that this was an idea worth pursuing.
Launching the Business
Once I finished building the simply.fund minimum viable product (utilizing WordPress and a constellation of plugins), I reached out to a group of teachers, beta testers, to see if they would give it a try. There were some encouraging successes right off the bat. A teacher in Virginia was able, in just a few weeks, to fully fund the cost of a color printer, which she needed to create high-quality learning materials for her students with autism.
With a functional product and customers, I applied to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG) in Providence, RI. I chose SEG because it specializes in fostering and growing triple-bottom-line businesses in their incubator, utilizing their large community of coaches, experts and mentors. Much like Babson’s Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab® and The John E. and Alice L. Butler Launch Pad, the SEG program challenges entrepreneurs to look at all angles of their business: setting goals; defining the vision, mission and strategy; creating a value proposition; fine-tuning and testing the business model; learning about business finance and funding, partnerships and pitches.
While going through SEG, some people I encountered voiced concerns similar to those at Babson’s Entrepreneur’s Boot Camp. At a cohort mixer, I was connected with a seasoned software developer. After pitching simply.fund to her, she furrowed her brow and said, “I’m having a hard time understanding what your unique advantage is over a site like GoFundMe. I’ve used GoFundMe and don’t see it as being difficult to use, which is what you call out as your key differentiator.”
Meanwhile, a week later I pitched simply.fund at an EdTech conference. At the end of the pitch session, an energetic grade-school librarian came up to me with a wide smile and said, “Simply.fund sounds too good to be true!” The following week, she set up a campaign to raise money to purchase materials for a maker space in her library.
I spent the last several weeks of the accelerator heartened by simply.fund’s modest successes, but really struggling with the feeling that it was not differentiated enough; that its foundation was wobbly; that I did not have the luxury of enough time or enough money to compete with the current competitors, or out run the up-and-coming ones.
I wondered, as an entrepreneur, how do you know when to gut it out? When to pivot? When to walk away?
I received as many answers to this question as people I asked.
Admitting Failure and Moving On
In the end, this question was answered for me. Just a few weeks before graduation from SEG, I was sitting at home watching the news on TV. The anchor woman said that Facebook had just announced they would be expanding their crowdfunding capabilities to help users back causes such as education – including tuition, books and classroom supplies.
And with that, this particular leg of my entrepreneurial journey came to an end after two years of investing my time, money, and hopes. Maybe there’s a business out there that can compete with Facebook, but it certainly was not simply.fund.
At the SEG finale event and party, as all the other entrepreneurs in my cohort were talking about the great progress they made during their time at the accelerator, I talked about my “failure.”
I closed my presentation by talking about Babson College professor Yasuhiro Yamakawa. His students call him Dr. Failure. Dr. Failure often uses a trampoline metaphor to illustrate the importance of failure. He says: “For you to jump your highest, you need to go your lowest.” With that in mind, the last slide in my accelerator graduation presentation was a picture of a person soaring above a trampoline.
What I learned–though not as quickly as I would have liked–is that if nine out of 10 startups will fail, then it’s of vital importance when building your venture to collaborate, take advice to heart, and be “risk-rational”—a term originated by Babson’s Susan Duffy, Executive Director at the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership.
If your business still folds, despite your best efforts, that’s okay. It’s what an entrepreneur does after their failure that matters more.