Lessons Through Failure: An Entrepreneurial Education

by Chad Udell
Float

Entrepreneurial education can hurt—but applying the lessons learned can offer success in the long term.

If we were to believe everything we read in today’s business press, we’d be inclined to say that everyone everywhere is having record success… and not a single thing has gone a bit wrong, or even a little sideways, for anyone. This article will be a bit divergent from that path. We’re going to talk about some ways to learn via failure. While it’s true you can model your company after the secrets of someone’s success, there are other ways to learn, too!

Every business has some failures. It’s really how they recover from those missteps that will provide success to them in the long term. The company that I’m part of, Float, is no exception. We’re a fun, vibrant organization with amazing accomplishments that I’m proud of. We’ve also had our share of learning through mistakes, missteps and miscalculations.

Recently, we launched a great product—an extremely innovative one at that—named Cydalion. Cydalion is an assistive application to provide navigation and obstacle avoidance to people living with visual impairments. It takes the camera feed from one’s device and translates it into a “sonar” of sorts to help people move about with more safety and confidence. Ultimately, it hasn’t been as successful as we had hoped. It wasn’t a total failure, though.

Cydalion was our first commercially available Augmented Reality (AR) app with wide release to the general public. Because of some interesting approaches we used in the product, it drove us to file our first patents. Through all of this, we got a chance to partner with a couple of excellent local organizations—ISU’s Department of Special Education and a student organization, Braille Birds—as well as a local nonprofit, Central Illinois Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. And we met some great people along the way.

I’ll share Cydalion’s failures, and maybe you can take some of these lessons and not have to experience them yourselves.

Lesson #1: Being too early to market with ideas can be a bad thing.
Float was founded in 2010—the iPad wasn’t even here yet. We’re used to being “first movers,” because when we started our work in mobile design and development for training and performance support, the market wasn’t really moving yet. In late 2016, we built the Cydalion product on a brand-new technology platform, Google Tango. Float was again a “bleeding-edge” early adopter.

Google Tango was a great experiment in AR, with some amazing capabilities that are still unmatched. It started in the Google Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) area, before maturing into an actual product. But after launch, it received limited support from OEMs. Eventually, even that support waned, and so the platform was subsumed into Android’s ARCore in the second half of 2017. With that technology essentially abandoned, it’s clear that redeveloping the Cydalion software to ARCore was going to be cost-prohibitive without some help or large reinvestment in development. We were a product without a long-term home.

What we learned:

  1. Sometimes a little smaller, slower and more methodical test can help illuminate holes in your strategy more effectively than pushing forward on new, untested technology. Demand drives product design, not the other way around.
  2. Big companies create (or destroy) markets, but innovative ones can move them; understanding the difference is crucial to growth for small, innovative businesses. Plan to be a mover and you might make it!
  3. Technology is fluid; expect it to change. New things can pop up, and they can disappear just as quickly.

Lesson #2: Product development is a marathon, not a sprint.
Float has a handful of apps for the B2C marketplace already. I would qualify most of them as successful, with impressive download counts, awards and more. Building an ecosystem around them, though—the support, the marketing, the community and more—actually dwarfs the product development. An idea is inexpensive. Building the idea out into a product costs a bit more. Care and feeding of the products are where the real costs will be after you reach version 1.0.

Cydalion was no different in this from a key point of view, but there were some critical issues that we hadn’t anticipated. Reaching a brand-new market segment was tougher this time around. We just didn’t have as much information about how the visually impaired (VI) community buys products to help them through their day. This audience was drastically different than the educational market or the corporate training space we were so used to.

We earned a lot of recognition—won awards, had speaking engagements at national conferences, got articles and local press—but even with all that, we just couldn’t move sales at the level needed to create a sustainable environment for the product.

What we learned:

  1. Always reserve funding and resources for the product’s ongoing lifecycle needs.
  2. Breaking into new markets requires even more research then breaking into your original markets did!
  3. Don’t mistake vanity metrics (press, downloads, likes, favorites, followers) for success metrics (sales, market share, true growth).

Lesson #3: Money doesn’t solve all your problems.
In 2016, Float was awarded a place in an amazing incubator program for that emergent tech, Tango (a first for us, as we had always been 100% bootstrapped). We were tremendously psyched for this! Float’s pitch concept was deemed innovative and impactful. Innovative, but expensive to design and build.

Float built an amazing app with the assistance of the local VI community. We’re tremendously proud of the work done, and we’ve filed a patent as a result of this work. We really learned about consumer-grade AR—including how to build and test robust, markerless AR—inside and out.

Even with the funding, we faced challenges. Money definitely changes the risk calculation, but it doesn’t fully mitigate it. We encountered a very interesting situation… we had a great product that showed potential to positively impact a small, but meaningful (and drastically underserved) community of people: the visually impaired community. When the incubator funding was ending, we started to seek more outside investment. We got a lot of great support from Bradley University, Startup Peoria and other local organizations in this step.

Venture capitalists were excited by the social-good factor of our product, but the economic side of things—the price of furthering the development—versus the size of the customer audience wasn’t a fit for the roughly dozen and a half groups we pitched to. The assistive technology space as a whole is also slow to adopt and invest in new technologies. The buying cycles and habits in this space seemingly don’t reward innovation; slow and steady seems to win the race. This is something we definitely hadn’t anticipated.

What we learned:

  1. Even with some financing and a good idea, success is not guaranteed. In fact, getting some funding can create issues, because you inevitably need more funding!
  2. Impact is measured in both quality and quantity. A big idea that serves people well isn’t good enough; you need a big idea that serves a big audience if you want or need big funding.
  3. The “checkbox” factor on a technology: accessibility and assistive tech isn’t a large industry, and investment there seems to be driven by legislation and an obligation to serve a market, which is not necessarily a ripe place for innovation or growth.

Wrapping It All Up
Well, there you have it. One big effort, a few months of hard work and exciting product design and development, and Float is moving on. We’ve put the Cydalion product on hiatus for now, but continue to migrate the important technologies to our other offerings.

What we learned:

  1. A life in entrepreneurship is a life as a lifelong learner.
  2. A life as a lifelong learner requires fortitude and the ability to adjust and move on.
  3. Knowing when to close a chapter and try something new is part of that, too.

What are you working on right now? What are some things that you’ll look back on as learning events? Remember, it’s not always the success that provides the most illuminating and powerful learning experiences. iBi

Chad Udell is Managing Partner, Strategy and New Product Development at Float, a mobile software design and development company focused on enterprise apps, learning and performance support.

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