Building a community to support and learn from failed startups

  • Website collating and chronicling startup failures seeks revival with an Asian focus
  • Some already interested in pitching in; founder looking for more collaborators 

Building a community to support and learn from failed startupsONE evening before a long weekend in New York two years ago, Ray Wu (pic) was struck by a sudden spark of inspiration: Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could learn from the insights of entrepreneurs who’ve failed, and thus avoid these same pitfalls?
The thought prompted the creation of WhatFailed.Us, a website dedicated to collating and chronicling the stories of startup failures in a bid to build a community of support and learning.
“I was inspired by the many post-mortem stories I read from founders who shared their insights, and was struck by how much I had learned from these insights,” said Wu in an interview with Digital News Asia (DNA).
Wu, who is currently programme manager at The Joyful Frog Digital Incubator Asia (JFDI.Asia) in Singapore, said that the original idea for the site was to encourage entrepreneurs to share their mistakes openly and build a community where there is a lot of support.
“The long-term vision was that some of these entrepreneurs would find other co-founders by contributing to this community and start a journey together,” he added.
However the website’s journey since has been bumpy, for as Wu himself discovered, it’s not that easy to convince entrepreneurs to publicly and openly talk about their failures.
“Definitely, there was a lot of resistance, even in San Francisco and New York City. I did a lot of face-to-face interviews when I was launching the prototype -- people all said they loved the idea; but only one person actually shared something personal of the 200 people I touched base with,” he said.
When asked which startup failure story is his personal favourite, Wu pointed to the story shared by Marc Hedlund on why personal finance app Wesabe lost out to Mint.
“I thought a lot about first versus second mover advantage. It may be a whole other conversation, but I believed only in sustaining innovation where the first mover actually had any sort of advantage. It was also a case of if we were building for the 80% of users or 20% of power users,” he noted.
Building a community to support and learn from failed startupsOf course, Wu’s project is not the first endeavour to focus on aspects of failure in the startup journey.
There is FailCon, which was started in 2009 by Cass Phillipps, an event planner for startup events, and Diane Loviglio, founder of Share Some Style.
It is a one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers and designers to study their own and others' failures. In Asia, the conference has been held in Singapore, India and Australia.
The most notable venture within this category was FuckedCompany, which first went live in 2000, chronicling failing and troubled companies in a unique and abrasive style after the dotcom bust.
It was created by Philip 'Pud' Kaplan, an American entrepreneur who founded several Internet companies including online advertising market site AdBrite.
Within a year it had a substantial audience and was getting plenty of mainstream press attention. At its peak, the site had four million unique monthly visitors, and was acquired by TechCrunch in 2007 in a stock-for-assets transaction.
Wu is now set on trying to revive WhatFailed.Us, shifting its geographical focus and tapping into the dynamic, rising startup communities of Asia.
“There has been a lot of enthusiasm on celebrating entrepreneurial failures, and I'd love to tap into the community here to revamp this website. The website was built on an old Rails framework, but it wasn't just the technology; I thought the use case and motivations for the users needed to be refined, too,” he said.
When asked if he’d find a site such as WhatFailed.Us useful, Johnson Goh, founder of online Korean pop music platform Eumakh who is currently based in Taiwan, said "Yes."
“Definitely. Failure is the best way to learn what not to do and I would even say it’s better than learning from success,” he added.
Goh also said he would even contribute his own stories of failure to such a site, though he noted that he also knew many who might not.
Jeffery Paine, founding partner at Golden Gate Ventures, an early-stage technology seed fund, said that a venture such as WhatFailed.Us is good to have in the space and would find traction, but added that numbers would be small.
He suggested that it would also be worthwhile to do a one-time e-book every two years, perhaps in connection with the ongoing FailCon series of events. “Asian entrepreneurs would certainly share insights on their failures with people and the public, but not too often,” he said.
In his ongoing mission to revive WhatFailed.Us, Wu shared that a few people have already approached him, expressing an interest in collaborating on the project.
“I'd like to make it 'open source' and I hope participating in the project would inspire some engineers to learn more about entrepreneurship in the region as well,” he said.
To get involved with the WhatFailed.Us project, contact Wu via Twitter.

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