Opinion: How we failed at our first start-up

by Chuks Okeibunor

It started from a comment by a friend I often discussed financial matters otherwise esoteric to normal 200L students. “Why don’t we start a group, pull funds together, invest and make money?”

I had another friend who followed stock prices; so I closed him and we were three. We needed two more people we agreed, and they had to be female to balance the equation; and, voila, we were complete.

We got together at our first meeting, decided what we were about, and what we wanted to do; collected ideas, and voted on them, and a company that started from the need to pull funds together to invest suddenly found itself incorporating as a marketing and general contractor company. We had been advised the general contractor clause gave us the extra allowance.

Based on our opportunity canvass, we decided we needed to build a corporate website, a company profile, get branded company materials and brochure, and develop proposals to get partners to finance our projects. We also needed to develop prototypes for one of the products we wanted to push to market, and we needed to have periodic meetings to check on progress.

To ensure nothing was left to chance, each person had an area of coverage: we were all promoted to director level; director of projects, director of marketing, managing director (I.e director of all), and to compensate for others who didn’t get to be directors, we had work for them too: We had decided we were going to give back to the community, so we had ‘Head of ‘Aid’’; we also decided we all loved God and needed him to partner, so we had a ‘faith outreach’ arm headed by another. 5 partners managing a partnership with 5 portfolios.

Young me was made the director of all.

Our ideas were sound, our proposals great, we DHLed our proposals to top banks in the country, got audience to present, but never quite got the money; comments were always “you guys are so young, just concentrate on your studies”. Somehow, talking to the bank executives was like talking to our parents. We got bored and shelved the idea.

The product prototype came out so horrible we hadn’t any clue why it was being presented in the first place, this caused some internal rift that led to one person resigning.

But, the only other option was to do it outside the country, we concluded; that was a roadblock we didn’t have the exposure to scale…so we never scaled it.

We pulled off our faith projects, we didn’t have any on AID because AID had a budget that relied heavily on us raking in huge profits first.

But that was it; the website gone, the brochure gone, not one dime invested, not one dime in revenue, but we succeeded in incurring lots of costs…and paying them!

Question is “Why did we fail?” Is it because the banks wouldn’t give us money? Or because there weren’t competent vendors who could develop our product?

Was it because we lacked vision?

No, it wasn’t cash, we had plenty of it; we almost didn’t have value for it. It wasn’t the lack of sponsors either, and it wasn’t for lack of vision; we were going to “floor Trump”! Yes, Donald Trump… this was 2008.

We failed, in retrospect, for three reasons:

  1. We didn’t focus: we tried to do so many things at the same time. The adrenaline rush, ideas racing in our heads, and the numbers looking all too good, we didn’t know how to say no to some opportunities, and that cost us a lot.

2. We didn’t know how to start small: our ideas were big, the numbers even bigger, likewise the needed investment. We had some money, and could easily pull up to hundreds of thousands collectively, but we weren’t going to settle for hundreds of thousand of Naira, we had those; we wanted to pull in tens of millions, but we failed to realize that we needed to rake it in in layers; first in thousands, then in ten thousands, and upwards. This concept of starting small is so profound that it’s given birth to the concept of the minimum viable product. But, we wanted it big.

3. We didn’t seek guidance: we pretty much knew it all; besides, who would we ask? We were the students who preferred writing business plans to reading our recommended texts, and in an environment like OAU at that time, there weren’t many people like us. Or so we thought. So we settled. We didn’t ask too many questions, so we didn’t get many answers; we figured it all out by ourselves, and, thus, we were crushed by the limitations of our collective exposure.

Plenty years it’s been since that first attempt and the documents are still with me, the company brochure, and lots of our meeting notes; I keep them because they remind me of my ignorance, silliness and naivety….they also give me a good laugh every time I look at them. I was silly stupid but I cherish those memories because they (and a few more) taught me all I take into every venture I’m involved with/in today.

And I’ve been privileged; to make a few successes, and to have helped some make their own successes.

In the end, failure is not such a ‘terrible something’ unless one persists in it

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Chuks Okeibunor is a StartUp and human capital enthusiast. He tweets @CEOkeibunor

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cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail