Monday 19 November 2012

Fail Fast - A Lesson In Not Wasting Time

fail fast

Around a year ago, I had an idea for a small browser based application that had the potential to smooth and streamline a workflow within universities around the country. The concept was simple and wouldn't have taken a huge amount of time to develop. Given my position working in a university setting, I had the ideal environment to test and prototype, but due to constraints on my time I didn't take the concept any further.

Fast forward to last week. I'd finally found the inspiration, motivation, and time to solidify and explore this idea. It took me less than an hour to map out the specifics of my concept, and email a few academic contacts to see what they thought of the idea. Feedback was positive; I'd found a niche. Unfortunately, the very same week, the university have announced that they are trialling a new, much larger system which implements a substantial feature list, and includes the subset of functionality I was aiming to provide.

Why do I tell you this story? Well, there's lessons here. Despite my initial disappointment, this is a perfect example of failing fast and learning quickly. While there was a part of me that felt I shouldn't release my idea into the world until I had built the application and had a full, perfect implementation to demonstrate, had I done this I would have committed hours, days, or weeks of my time to building a system that had zero chance of ever being used. Here's what this experience taught me:
  1. Talk about your ideas. It's natural to feel protective of your concepts, and worry that they might be stolen or plagiarised (or laughed at - see 3.). In my experience, it's highly unlikely that they will, and if they do, talking to enough people makes it clear where the idea originated. The knowledge and insights you stand to gain from sharing knowledge and ideas far outweigh any perceived risks of collaboration.
  2. Act Early. If you have an idea, or discover a niche you could occupy, act on it early. If I'd had the confidence to explore my concept a year earlier, I'd have been first to market, so to speak, and would have been in a much better position to compete with the larger system that has come along now. Who knows, I might have gained enough traction to have become that larger system.
  3. Fight your inner perfectionism. The world is imperfect, and so your contributions to it can be too. Don't spend forever perfecting designs, ideas and implementations. However scary it might be, put yourself and your ideas out there, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at the what happens.
So there we have it, it took me less than a day to establish that, despite a market need, my good idea wasn't commercially viable in current circumstances. My time is now free to explore my next project. Next time you find yourself thinking "maybe there's a need for this... one day I'll have the time..." - take the time to explore, find feedback and fail fast or fly.

[Image credit]


  1. Thank you for sharing your story Mat. It has a truly valuable message! :)


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