Revitalizing a failed college startup, and moving forward past previous failures

Using past failures to help define future success isn’t anything new. A Google search for “successful people who failed” reveals several great examples… here are 3 of my favorites:

  1. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”.
  2. Harland David Sanders, the famous KFC “Colonel,” couldn’t sell his chicken. He was rejected by more than 1000 restaurants.
  3. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to launch his now failed startup called Traf-O-Data.

I haven’t achieved any massive level of success like the examples just mentioned, but I still have this feeling people could get a lot of value out of hearing my own story. If sharing my story and lessons learned from previous failures can help just one future entrepreneur, writing this article will be totally worth it. So here we go!

Inspired Entrepreneur or just another Wantrereneur?

I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was a child. I can recall playing this game in elementary school where we were all assigned careers to learn about, and I was (randomly) assigned entrepreneur. The basic synopsis was that they were creative, they enjoyed helping people, they made good money, but they usually worked long hours. There was something about it that just seemed to click with me.

In high school, I would day dream a lot. Honestly, I was much more interested in filling my day sketching out golf courses & listening to music than I was really applying myself to my studies. As a result of this casual approach to learning, I was really only ever a C or SOMETIMES a B student. There were however a few classes I did very well in… one of them being entrepreneurial studies. I think the teacher was a bit of an easy going guy when it came to marking, but either way I left entrepreneurial studies with an A, and that somewhat validated that I really did want to own my own business.

The problem? I wasn’t incredibly passionate about any one area of learning. I was good at a bunch of things, but really not great at anything. With no obvious passion to pursue, I applied to marketing at Fanshawe College, which was the closest thing to entrepreneurial studies at the time.

My first business idea & dropping out of college

In college, I basically continued to do what I did in high school. I squeezed in lots of daydreaming, music, work & friends… but not a ton of quality learning. I just wasn’t feeling much passion about any of the classes I was in. I found some of the classes I took in college to be so easy that it was impossible to pay attention, and some were such a struggle to pass (damn you stats) that I lost interest in those classes as well.

It wasn’t a great 1st year of college for me, except for one moment that sparked my first business idea & changed my life. I purchased a marketing textbook for $120. At the end of the semester, I took it to the school buy back which offered me $20 for that same book in excellent condition. I then later saw them reselling this same used book for $80… there had to be a better way.

What we needed was an online marketplace where students could buy and sell their own used textbooks. Ideally, the site would allow textbook buyers and sellers all across Canada to connect & it wouldn’t necessarily require students to meet with strangers in person that they don’t know.  After validating the idea with some friends and doing some research on the potential competitors, I decided this was a business idea worth developing.

In 2003, I got together with a 1st year computer programming student and explained my idea. He said he’d like to help, and offered to do so at a very affordable rate because he was just learning how to code. I didn’t want to spend all the money I was making at my job (which paid $6.85/hour) on developing the site, so working with a fellow student seemed like a perfect plan.

The process of creating and getting the site developed taught me a lot. I learned so much while doing that, that I (somewhat naively) decided college wasn’t for me. In early 2004, we were able to finish and launch a functioning version of the site. While I did take some additional classes mainly in continuing education at night, I basically made the decision that school wasn’t for me. I was going to drop out of college, and run my business and work full time.

Unfortunately, when two 1st year college students try to develop a new concept like this without help or guidance, mistakes happen. While I was satisfied we did indeed have a functional version of the web site I had thought of, I was never comfortable heavily promoting it because I knew about all the issues that needed to be fixed, at some point. Google ended up naturally ranking the site high which kept it afloat as a part time hobby business, but overall I would classify it as a business failure.

Lessons learned

Seek the help and guidance of experts – I was a shy & somewhat insecure kid, and it honestly didn’t even occur to me to talk about my idea to someone who could provide me with any actual guidance. If I had brought the idea up to a teacher, an experienced web developer, a small business expert, or anyone at all outside of my immediate peer group…. I might have received the guidance and advice I needed to make the best possible product, and create a profitable business. I clearly needed lots of advice on creating a web based service as well as starting and growing a business… but I never asked for this help, and therefore was left to figure things out on my own.

Be in it for the marathon, not the race – It would have been very easy for me to beat myself up over this business failure. Instead, I picked up the pieces and put my attention on some other passions I had related to doing business online. It didn’t eat me up inside that the Textbook Exchange didn’t work out exactly as planned because I could easily sit back, recognize what I had learned, and apply it to working on my next business… and now the evolution of the Textbook Exchange. You need to learn to embrace failures and realize that your past failures will help mould your future success.

You can still win when taking the road less traveled – I love being an entrepreneur. I think one of the most appealing things about entrepreneurship was the desire I have always had to show people you can still do well in life, even if you don’t follow the path everyone else seems to be taking. It can be a little riskier than getting an education and finding related employment, and I’m not telling you to spend your life savings on an idea you haven’t validated as being one worth exploring, but my point is that it is important to recognize that it is OK to take a different path than you might have thought you were originally supposed to take… if you have the passion and grit, you can still win.

Practice creative thinking and challenge social norms – A typical person sees a great invention such as the wheel and simply accepts it for what it is.  A creative thinker might look at it and think… hmm, that’s great but I wonder how it can be improved. Train yourself to listen to people, and what they like and dislike. Think about how their complaints might be addressed by an existing company, or a new business idea. The more you activate this part of your brain, the better and more creative you’ll get, when it comes to thinking of great opportunities to start and grow a business.

Don’t chase money, or an indefinable level of success – Any time I have attempted to succeed by chasing money, it has backfired. It took me on paths I thought could make more money in an easier manor, or it kept me chasing “success” which is usually impossible to define. It is a much more productive use of time to validate a business idea, and do the very best you can to create the best product or service possible. Focus on serving an audience and not on money. Don’t get distracted from your mission by opportunities to make a quick dollar.

These are just 5 examples of lessons learned that immediately come to mind. I’m sure if I thought long enough, I could come up with dozens of invaluable things I learned by going through the process of starting and growing a business while in college. I guess my point is just that you need not dwell on things, when they don’t go as planned. The vast majority of us will fail at some point, one way or another. As challenging as it can be in some situations, you just need to learn to embrace failure as a stepping stone to success. This will keep the positive momentum going which will normally help you achieve your goals and dreams much quicker.

 

PS – If you know a college or university student who might be willing to check out the new Textbook Exchange, they can find it here. I would love to hear some feedback, but even if they just use it to save some money on textbooks, that’s great too.

PPS – The Textbook Exchange Facebook Page is brand new, and could use a little love in the form of new likes. You can find the page on Facebook here. I’ll mainly be sharing stuff relevant to students & saving money while in school.

About The Author

Derrick

At LOWD Media, we specialize in supporting entrepreneurs. We understand inspired entrepreneurs and business minded individuals. We then use this understanding to learn about your business and help you create a look and feel for your business – your brand identity. Our business startup packages provide everything you need to begin marketing your business effectively and at an affordable price. Once you begin marketing and growing your business, we strive to support you and grow with you. Long term success for your business means long term success for our business. Let your brand be heard loud and clear with LOWD.

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