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How Startups Can Bounce Back After a Failed First Launch

How Startups Can Bounce Back After a Failed First Launch
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Q: How can you bounce back after you didn't get as much traction as needed?

A: In the late 90’s, I oversaw product development for a startup called Sendwine.com. As the name implies, the company focused on wine delivery by mail. We weren’t getting the traction we wanted, and I was tasked with helping the company find a new direction. We ended up pivoting to Send.com, a luxury gift company, and in the first year achieved more than $10 million in revenue.

Bouncing back after you don’t get the traction you need sounds so simple in hindsight. However, in the moment, it’s an extraordinarily daunting task.   

As an entrepreneur looking to find a new way forward, you’ve likely invested your heart and soul, not to mention time and money, into your startup. You’ve built a team, launched a product or service, and have tried countless ways to market your product as effectively as possible. If you’re not seeing the desired traction after all this effort, the overwhelming temptation can be to close up shop.

Resilience is a key quality for entrepreneurs, and it’s a particularly important one to have when you’re not getting enough traction. Instead of giving up on your business, I’d recommend taking the following steps:

Collect customer feedback

Taking stock of exactly where you stand with your customers is a good place to start. I know collecting customer feedback is fairly common advice, but I’d add that it’s important to gather feedback from both current and former customers.

For current customers, ask them what they like about your product, and a few things they’d want to see improved. If you can track down any former customers, ask them why they’re no longer using your product or service, and if there’s anything you could do to win them back.

When you’re gathering this data, try to do so in as systematic a way as possible. If you have a customer email list, consider sending out a 3-5 question survey, and offer an incentive like a gift card to complete it. Also augment any online feedback gathering with at least a few in-person interviews.

Once you’ve gathered this feedback, analyze the data to see if you can find any trends around what your current and former customers do and don’t like about what you’re selling.

Related: 6 Stories of Super Successes Who Overcame Failure

Consider bringing in new advisors

Just because you’re not getting the traction you want doesn’t mean you should abandon your trusted advisors. I’d encourage the exact opposite -- continue having conversations with your existing advisors about what they think you can do to move your business forward.

But bouncing back often requires bringing in fresh perspective, which means also seeking opinions from people who are outside of your existing advisory circle.

When looking for new advisors, identify entrepreneurs who have experience in a similar industry, and reach out to them to see if they’d be willing to meet with you. In addition to industry experts, successful entrepreneurs who don’t work in your industry can offer a useful outsider perspective into what you need to do to gain more traction.

Related: OK, So You Failed. Now What?

Look at how your competition is faring

As best you can, try to get a sense of how your competitors are doing. A thorough look through their websites will likely show you who their customers are. You might even be able to find their revenue from press releases or news articles. For your most successful competitors, try to identify exactly what they’re doing better than you are, and brainstorm how you could more effectively compete.

When I give this advice to entrepreneurs, I often get the response, “That’s great, but I don’t have any competitors. We’re creating something so innovative that there’s nothing else out there like it.”

If you don’t have any competitors, that means you’re trying to create a market from scratch, which is infinitely harder than selling into a market that already exists and is likely the reason you’re not getting enough traction. In this case, I’d strongly encourage you to either reposition your product in a market where there is competition, or create an entirely new product that has an existing market. This brings me to my last point: pride and pivoting.

Don’t let your pride prevent you from pivoting

After talking to customers, getting fresh perspective from advisors and taking a look at your competitors, it’s time to make a move. In many cases, bouncing back will require more than just tweaking your existing product or service. Instead, you’ll have to develop a significantly different offering for a new market.

Some entrepreneurs get very stubborn when it comes to changing the direction of their business. They strongly believe in their original idea, and are convinced that they can make it work.

Related: 6 Lessons I Wish I'd Known Before My Business Failed

For founders who are married to their ideas, I say this: Great entrepreneurs balance the conviction in their ideas with the humility to take action when their original ideas aren’t translating into the desired business results. If your customers, advisors and competitors are telling you that it’s time to change directions, I’d strongly encourage you to take this advice to heart.