Failing forward: how failure can set you up for success - with Geoff Walters, CEO of Content Viking

Failing forward: how failure can set you up for success – with Geoff Walters, CEO of Content Viking

There is no success without failure – and succeeding is not about preventing failure – it’s about learning from the experience and applying the lessons to your next steps. How can you redefine failure to set yourself up for success, and how can you apply the lessons our guest has learnt on his entrepreneurial journey to your social media marketing efforts? I am talking to Geoff  Walters, CEO of Content Viking,  about what he learnt from his four (failed) business ventures, and how these learnings can be universally applied to help you…fail forward faster.

Geoff’s Story

How I met Geoff, and why it matters

emilia from postfity graduation

I met Geoff a few months ago in Content Marketing Lounge group, but – although we were not aware of it at that time – we have met much earlier. As it turned out, we studied at Cambridge University in the same year, shared some lectures in the same department, and had several friends in common. Uncannily, our paths inadvertently continued to run in parallel since graduation: we both moved countries, had (multiple) failed business ventures, and then went on to set up content agencies. Needless to say, we instantly hit it off and shared many insights and best practices, along with our experience of failures.

As a 20-something, I have started three businesses: a translation-turned-content marketing agency, a sports nutrition startup making…porridge for runners, and an app for expats…in China! Two of them failed. The first one miraculously survived until this day (which I described with all the gory details in this post for Userpilot).

Geoff had four failed startup attempts, which he meticulously dissected in his honest confession on his blog (What I learned from failing in business 4 times).  Starting from a fully-bootstrapped platform designed to introduce direct democracy to the UK (GovMakr), through a Berlin-based social app called Comeet (which labelled itself, perhaps unfortunately as ‘Tinder for groups, minus the sexual part‘), to a failed YouTube Channel and a dropshipping site – Geoff’s early business attempts didn’t go according to plan either.

And while we obviously bonded over our shared experience of business failure, the conversation was more about the ‘lessons learnt’ rather than a compassionate pat on the back.

Neither of us stopped at the first, second, third try. And it wasn’t easy – the environment which we both come from (Oxbridge) had zero tolerance for failure – and by the time we finally hit the home run (sort-of-kinda-not-quite – if you know what I mean), most of our classmates boasted impressive corporate careers on their LinkedIn profiles, and first steps on the property ladder – things we have both foresworn to pursue the entrepreneurial dream.

We both agreed we wouldn’t be able to be where we are now without the lessons we learnt from our previous (failed) startup attempts.

And I wanted to share those with you now, along with how you can apply them to your social media strategy.

Geoff’s lessons:

Ideas are worth $20. Execution is what really matters.

Geoff’s first startup idea – the direct democracy app (the GovMaker) – seemed so precious and vulnerable to him, he wouldn’t share it with anyone until it was finished – not even his family. This robbed him not only of the opportunity to collect useful feedback on the product, business model, but also to find a co-founder when he desperately needed one.

This seems almost unthinkable the times of the ‘Lean Startup’ paradigm which propagated iterative product development in response to user feedback. And yet – many beginner business owners seem to still make the same mistakes as Geoff at the beginning of his startup journey.

Takeaways?

  • Great ideas are not worth millions – great execution is worth millions. Look, most people are not lurking there ready just to hijack your ‘great idea’ and do them on their own – because what separates the great idea from a great business is years of hard slog, sweat, and sacrifices. Sacrifices most people are not willing to make. By sharing your ‘million-dollar-idea’ with other people you can collect useful feedback, and actually grow it into something meaningful. Without customer feedback on your product, and mentor’s feedback on your business model – you will be wandering in the dark. And both the product and the business will be much more likely to fail. 

Waiting for all lights to be green is like waiting for Godot.

The second startup Geoff joined as Head of Marketing was a social app. But it never even really got to the point where the product saw daylight – all the months of planning and no execution just lead to ‘analysis paralysis’ and conflicts within the team, which ultimately fell apart without bringing anything to life (apart from elaborate plans).

Takeaways?

The speed-to-market is essential: ‘you don’t learn until you launch (as the author of ‘7 Day Startup’ Dan Norris used to say). You should continuously test your product on real users Traction and keep building your traction channels alongside your product (read more about it in ” by Gino Wickman).

If you’re launching your first business, it’s paramount to get cash in ASAP.

The following startup attempts by Geoff failed for a simple reason: he chose business models that didn’t get him cash fast enough for him to be able to continue working on his businesses.

Takeaways?

If you’re launching your first (or only) business, you’re self-funded, and the business is your only job (not a side-hustle): it’s essential that you choose something that can bring you some income fast. This will give both a motivation boost, be an early traction sign, and allow you to survive until your business starts making more money without the mental anguish of financial insecurity (the kind of insecurity when you don’t know if you’ll be able to pay your bills) that can break even the most determined entrepreneurs.

Learning from failures on Social Media: It’s OK to throw spaghetti on the wall, as long as you measure what sticks

spaghetti

Image source

So, how does that tale translate into social media marketing?

  • Testing wins over planning every time – don’t spend hours (or days…or weeks…) creating elaborate ‘social media marketing strategies’ you will probably never be able to execute: by the time you have started doing whatever you’ve planned and collecting real data on whether it works – you may realise new things and you may want to change the course completely. Make some hypothesis and create a short strategy (maybe for 2-4 weeks) and then set out to test things as soon as possible. Do A/B tests (split tests) on Facebook with different graphics, experiment with different length of your posts, experiment with different voice – but make sure you check your insights and analytics (you can use Postfity analytics to see how your posts perform across different platforms from one dashboard) frequently to see what works and what doesn’t, and make informed decisions about your next steps.
  • On the other hand – while it’s OK not to know exactly what works at the start (and keep ‘throwing spaghetti on the wall’) – you need to ultimately analyse and measure what sticks – which tactics work, and which don’t. 
  • Learn from your failures – if something is clearly not working, and you have given it a fair shot – don’t keep hitting your head against the wall as if nothing happened. Take your lessons and move to another approach – aka – fail forward.

Final thoughts

Whatever you fail at – whether it’s a business, a failed relationship, failed launch or campaign – you should not use it as an excuse not to try again but as a valuable lesson. Analyse what happened, why it happened, and how you can prevent it from happening in the future.

In other words – don’t just fail. Fail forward.