I spent 22 months and tens of thousands of dollars building two e-commerce subscription services that no longer exist. This blog is the story of my startup “failure.”

On a good day, I appreciate that I learned more from this experience than I did building my first company and selling it to a multinational media conglomerate. On a bad day, I feel like an incompetent, unemployable loser who would give my left arm for a paycheck and health insurance.

Another Failure Story, Really?

Risking it All

Bonobos Pants Stick Out in a Crowd

Since I don’t fit the profile of Silicon Valley debutantes – Harvard dropouts who write code – my narrative will be different. The lens of a 20-something programmer and a 47-year-old entrepreneur will hardly be alike. Young founders still feel bold when “risking it all”, even when “it all” is money for rent and beer. Us old folk tend to color inside the lines. Risky in my crowd is breaking out a new pair of Bonobos jeans, not self-funding a startup.

Since comedy is often just tragedy plus time, my story is hilarious. Enter your email to be notified of new posts – I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

 The Good, Bad and Ugly

good bizI’ll share our triumphs and our mistakes. For instance, we built 4 different e-commerce sites – each on a different platform – using 13 developers from 6 different countries. Not my finest moment, but lesson learned.

We tested business models, marketing tactics and our sanity by teaching ourselves how to create, source, market, and fulfill a pet product subscription service. My tiny team and I learned first hand about 21st century e-commerce; marketing automation; the $58 billion dollar pet industry; social media strategy and measurement; subscription product economics; affiliate marketing; product fulfillment logistics; front and back-end programming; efficient project management; managing developer Prima donnas; and much more.

We experimented with the cost of customer acquisition (CCA), driving and converting traffic, maximizing customers’ lifetime value (LTV) and the levers of metrics-based, measurable, iterative marketing, often referred to as “Money Ball” marketing. In the end, we had a great product mix, streamlined operations, an efficient marketing machine, and evangelical customers.

But, like many startups, the economics of building a profitable, sustainable business eluded us for too long.

What Happened?

We stopped taking orders for PoopBuddy™ (yes, that’s really the name) on March 31st, 2014. PoopBuddy was just our pivot after spending eight months building™, which of course never launched. The UI and UX are beautiful, but hardly an MVP.

The reasons for our demise could be argued for hours, depending on your lens, experience and profession. One obvious reason is that we didn’t sign up and retain enough customers to offset operational costs. In business model jargon, our CCA was greater than their LTV. I’ll explain more in future posts.

They say entrepreneurs don’t die, they drown…just one more thing and it will work! Luckily, in a brief moment of sanity, I grabbed the life ring and shut it down.

Collateral Damage?

Although my story is amusing, I don’t take this “failure” lightly. I’m profoundly sad to disappoint those who believed in me: employees, contractors, advisors, partners, affiliates, family, friends, press and most of all, my customers. My allies confirm that I was realistic about our chances of success and that the experience was priceless for all involved.

gladiatorThe quote below, cited in Daring Greatly, one of my favorite books by Brene Brown wraps it up perfectly.

“It’s not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails.”

— Theodore Roosevelt from a speech called The Man in the Arena, delivered in Paris, France on 23 April 1910.