How failure breeds success: the highs and lows of new ventures

Four years ago something very exciting happened

A girl I sat next to in the office arrived back from an event with a tote bag full to the brim of content. Not internet content. Real, printed on paper content. Brochures, pamphlets, product one pagers. The lot.

When I asked what ‘insight’ she had got from the event she opened said tote bag, poured it over the desk and said “well, have a look through this.”

Obviously it was a ridiculous suggestion, but it did lead to a not so ridiculous idea.

It got us thinking – what if there was a way to collect any type of content from exhibitors at events straight to your phone, and have it waiting for you on your desktop when you got back to the office to read, watch and share with others?

It was an idea that led Earnest to create its first ever product from scratch – Event Wallet.

An idea that needed a hefty investment of time and money to get off the ground. An idea that led to us having a real, living breathing brand out in the market to sell.

It was also an idea that, despite much hard work, some amusing promotion films and a whole lot of love and affection didn’t take off like we had hoped and dreamed.

Two years ago something else very exciting happened

A friend that I used to sit next to was being interviewed for an Earnest Labs podcast in a pub talking about ‘tech for good’ (at our infamous ‘Tech pub quiz’.)

Having done some volunteering for a charity who ran school lunch programmes for children in Kenya, she posed the point that it would be incredible if there was a piece of technology that would enable you to pay for someone else’s lunch while you paid for your own.

Obviously it was a far fetched suggestion, but it led to a not so far fetched idea.

It got us thinking – what if there was a way, using contactless donation technology, that you could enable people buying their coffee and sandwiches from cafes to pay for children to have a lunch for a week with the tap of their card.

It was an idea that led to Earnest creating what became an award winning idea – Lunchbox.An idea that led to us setting up the first ever one stop shop for contactless donations – Tap for Change. An idea that made a genuine difference in the world and enabled thousands of pounds to be raised for good causes.

It was an idea that, after even more hard work and love and affection, continues on an upward trajectory of incredible success.

I think side projects (you, my friends, will not ever get me to say ‘Side Hustle’) are one of the most important things any agency (or business for that matter) can do. They help you to mix the things you enjoy with the things that help you develop a skill. They mean you can grow your business in new and exciting ways, experience a degree of fame and most importantly, enable you to stay interested and interesting.

But there’s a catch – they are bloody hard, they are horribly time consuming and sometimes they are lonely and stressful. And when they flop, you might cry.

So, to save your liberal lefty snowflake tears, here are some things I learned from failure to both save you the same time and effort of doing the same wrong moves and help you succeed in your first (or next) side project.

Get as many people on your side as possible

Whatever you do, don’t try and go this alone. Even if you, like me at the time of making Event Wallet, are desperate for praise and acclaim want to take all the credit, you will soon learn that the more people you have on board the better.

Get everyone, from the ‘top’ to the ‘bottom’ within your business excited about and bought into the project from day one and keep them up to date as you go along. While it’s important to keep big decisions to a core team (Camel, horse, committee etc.) you want this to be something everyone is proud of.

Where Event Wallet was launched with a ‘TA DAH!’ email, I made sure Lunchbox and Tap for Change was everyone’s baby from day one and it made all the difference in making it a success (not least getting people to go out and flyer in t-shirts to promote it.)

Find the right partners

While we can happily boast all day long about what a triumph Tap for Change has been, the honest truth is that without our partners, LibertyPay, we are sure to have had another ‘what could have been’ on our hands.

LibertyPay, a payments provider who specialise in working with charities, have been the backbone of the operation and we have complemented each other perfectly to create a world beating product.

In our recent trip around the UK finding out about Small Businesses, many put their success down to a reliance on their networks and starting a successful side project is no difference.

So before you get going, remember this isn’t all about you – find partners who you know, trust and most importantly get along with because when there are hiccups you will need each other.

Think about the money last

If we dig around in the drawers, I think we would come across a list of things we would spend our miraculous wealth on once Event Wallet went mainstream – LinkedIn would buy it, we would buy 1x mega yacht each, and the whole agency would enter an official month of hedonism sponsored by the app.

And while this never quite happened – we did learn a lesson: If you are starting a side project you need to be in it for the right reasons and in my (humble) opinion, money should never be number one.

We started Tap for Change with one very clear mission – we wanted to change donor behaviours in the country forever – for the benefit of charities large and small. At Earnest it is run as a not for profit venture, which allows us to focus on the mission and has kept our thinking clear and it’s paid off. Rewards will come, just be patient.

Face the issues head on

If you’re anything like me you will be more interested in celebrating and shouting about the good bits than facing up to the harder bits – which is crazy when you think about the number of obstacles there are when trying to create something great.

Ignorance and burying your head in the sand will get you nowhere – remember that issues will crop up all the time, and you will never be able to see them coming around the corner. The best thing you can do is tackle them head on, before they grow into something bigger (and potentially product destroying). Just don’t be too sensitive – getting stuff wrong is fine.

Don’t look sideways

Have you seen The Defiant Ones? Go and watch The Defiant Ones. It’s the story of how Jimmy Iovine (a record label owning music mogul) and Dr Dre (you know who Dr Dre is) created ‘Beats’.

It’s an incredible four part documentary for 200 different reasons, but one of the best bits is where Jimmy talks about race horses and the importance of not looking sideways.

The point is this – while we were creating Event Wallet, I personally wasted a lot of energy and time worrying about what other people in the market were doing, listening to bullshit from other people saying they were doing the same thing (four years later this still hasn’t happened) and generally being swayed and influenced by outside factors.

With Tap for Change it’s been a different story. While we have been the first people to launch a mass offering for charities as a one stop shop for contactless donation, the market has grown and competition has arrived (which is genuinely good news for the sector) – but everyone is doing it for their own reasons whether that’s profit, brand or trying to look like they are keeping up with changing payment trends.

Not looking sideways has, again, meant we can focus on building the best possible product and service for charities without worrying what everyone else is doing. Forget the rest and you’ll be the best (or something like that).

Believe the hype

Whatever you are making (or have made) chances are you’ll be being humble about it. You’ll have seen the good and bad and probably have a lot of self doubt. But at least you’ve done something.

Don’t be afraid to tell whoever will listen about what you are doing, don’t be afraid to do a bit of self promotion and don’t be afraid to be slightly proud of yourself once in a while – it’ll make everything a lot more fun.

Looking back at the Event Wallet website in preparation for writing this, I was reminded what a great thing we built and we should have believed the hype a little more.

When it comes to Tap for Change and Lunchbox we are more than happy to believe the hype and be proud of what we have achieved – not least seeing an average donation over the last 3 months of £6.15 (when was the last time you chucked more than 50p in a shaker bucket? Hey? never).

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At Earnest Labs we’re looking for the next big idea that’s lurking around the corner, and sure we will learn even more along the way but in the meantimes it’s the lessons from our failures that are propelling us forward.

If you’re thinking about kicking off your side project, I say go for it. It’ll be worth every second.