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A buzzword born in Silicon Valley, “fail fast” is an attractive concept that’s spread around the globe. Using the principles of agile programming, it boils capitalism down to a core essence that promises accelerated creation of products that matter. Do some R&D to test out an idea, determine if it’s viable early in the process, quickly recognize a failure, and abandon it and move on if it is. However, most people have got it all wrong. I’m going to explain the two big reasons why fail fast is a failure – and what we can salvage from it.
The problem is that MVP usually results in a race to make crappy products.
Problem one: execution
One big problem with fail fast isn’t in the concept, it’s in the execution. A core ingredient to failing fast is the idea of a minimum viable product (MVP). Unlike minimum viable marketing which stresses a lean marketing approach, the intent of MVP isn’t just lean, it’s building a product that invests the least amount of work that will show if an idea has legs. The problem is that MVP usually results in a race to make crappy products. As UX expert Jon Pittman says, “Engineering and business culture often focuses on minimum features and forgets the viability part.”
Companies that live the fail fast mantra tend to give up easily.
We’ve all seen (or bought) new and exciting products that check the feature boxes yet provide a terrible experience. They were rushed out the door to test viability. However, insufficient effort was invested in trying to make the products intuitive to use and attractively presented. You can’t test your MVP without providing a great user experience as these days, nothing less is expected by the consumer. And note that since many people seem to conflate the two, I do mean user experience, not user interface. The entire experience of all interactions of the company and the product with the user should be positive. As Techstars Managing Partner David Brown emphasizes, “It’s about the little things, not the big ones.” Maybe your product is failing because of bad execution, not a bad idea.
B2B execution fail
What is the fail fast failure we see most when it comes to business to business (B2B) execution? While the audience may be different, the problem is equivalent – a poor user experience. Just because you’re a startup with a great idea, don’t expect that your idea is capable of winning hearts, minds, and wallets all by itself. You have to invest enough in your brand and your product to allow others to think you actually believe in your own ideas.
Engineering and business culture often focuses on minimum features and forgets the viability part.
Consider a professional logo, print real business cards, put up more than a one-page overnight website, and create polished marketing materials, whether sales decks, brochures, or demos. Make sure that if you fail it’s because your ideas won’t work, not that you presented them poorly or unprofessionally.
Problem two: persistence
The other big failure of fail fast is that it discourages persistence. Companies that live the fail fast mantra tend to give up easily. It’s almost like they’re rushing to fail. As Kontra Agency says, “Failing at MVP often yields smaller financial losses, but breeding the culture of failure only results in more failure.” Forbes explains that, “Fail fast, fail often” tends to become a culture where speed is valued more than creativity. And without creativity, those fast results are often bound for failure. By focusing on a fast failure, we aren’t giving enough credence to the time-honored values of just keeping at something until it’s right.
“Fail fast” results in a fetishization of failure.
We’re currently working with a startup that’s still in stealth mode; we’re helping them with their brand and greatly looking forward to their launch. They’ve been at it for three years, yet under a fail-fast culture they might have given up long ago. What they’re developing is extremely hard, and sometimes it takes a lot of patience and hard work to get to the finish line. A belief that you need to fail fast can interfere with the effort of building something that’s complex, lasting, or well-crafted.
Fixing fail fast
“Fail fast, fail often” is a flawed way to capture a good concept. As Entrepreneur brilliantly puts it, it results in a fetishization of failure. We shouldn’t be hoping to fail, we should be hoping to succeed. What’s the solution? Ken Tencer offers a great alternative: “Succeed fast, adjust or move on”. Admittedly this isn’t as catchy, but it does focus on some of the key elements that make fail fast attractive. It corrects the failure fetishization, but it doesn’t necessarily solve everything.
Rakhi Rajani captures it from another angle when she talks about Minimum Lovable Product (MLP). This idea is a bit stickier than “succeed fast, adjust or move on”. If you want to prove your idea can succeed, your chances are far higher if you build an MLP instead of an MVP. In my mind it’s still missing the perseverance part, and it’s slanted towards B2C rather than B2B.
The DIVA approach
I’ve come up with the initialism DIVA to capture everything I think fail fast needs to be replaced with: delightful, industrious, viable, and agile.
- Build something delightful: create an excellent user experience
- Be industrious: don’t be afraid to keep plugging away at a great idea
- Make sure it’s viable: meet the minimal functional expectations
- Be agile: be prepared to move on if it’s just not working
Now – no matter how fast you are – wouldn’t you rather have a successful DIVA than a string of failures?