Marketing My Own Failure

Marketing My Own Failure

We were on a roadshow. One of our insanely successful board members suggested that we get on a bus and go to every nearby city telling people about our new and innovative website that solves the "business connectivity and trust” issue on the continent.

The catch was our site hardly worked. You could barely do anything yet. We were running out of money, investors were pulling out. Every Zimbabwean that I talked to, including the CEO of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Commerce and the CEO’s Roundtable, sort of looked at me, nodded at my aspirations, probably looked down on me because of my age (it’s a big thing in Zim or at least it used to be), and cringed. An application that connected people based on trust didn’t seem to fit in their minds.

So like I said, we went on the road, hoping that the people who didn’t sit behind big desks would understand. This is when we made tea out of bathwater.

Our budget was null, so we had to figure out a way to charge people to come listen to us market our own product. We set up a business conference and used our relationships. We did the setting up, the pouring of orange juice, the speaking, the question and answers. In amongst all that, we got the word out about Big Africa. People were enthralled and we were awarded roaring hand claps.

I’ll never forget being in the Holiday Inn in Mutare. The conference room was absolutely jammed. It was right at the end of the day and someone in the crowd asked a question.

“When can we get on the site and do what you’re explaining?”

I told him that it would be ready in two weeks. But two weeks from now was way too late. This person didn’t want it tomorrow and wasn’t going to care about it in two weeks. By then something else would have taken up his attention.

Why did we do this? We packed out conference rooms in 6 different cities (made more money off of that then the site ever did), but didn’t have a working product. How could I have been so stupid? I was marketing my own failure. I went on TV shows, on radio shows—all under the guise that it was better to get your name out there and get momentum, than to wait for a working product.

We got phone calls and emails:

“Hey the site doesn’t work”

“Please direct me to the real site.”

“When will it be ready.”

Our offices overlooked Borrowdale Road and I would count the cars that passed by. The techies were giving it their best shot in the other room, but their best shot just wasn’t working. Nothing was working and I had just gone on a marketing spree to the masses.

I got married in the midst of all of this. She must have seen the “me in 5 years” because my position at that time was pitiful. The day I got back from our honeymoon—there were no cheers or welcome home fruit baskets from my friends. Just very stern faces. Each of them had a list of people who were trying to get ahold of me—angry investors, people that needed money, and employees that were supposed to have been paid but were not.

I had fallen in love with my idea and blinded myself to the writing on the wall. We didn’t execute well and because we were in Zimbabwe, I accepted the excuses of poor infrastructure, lack of capital from potential customers, and missed deadlines for “doing business in Africa.” Rather, I should have seen that the tea was made out of putrid water soaked in a mop bucket and heated for effect.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, I’ve learned so much.

  • Keep learning.
  • Don’t accept “doing business in Africa” excuses.
  • It’s okay to pivot, but have a working product before you do.
  • Test your product before you present it to the public. Do they even want it the way you made it?
  • When you present it, make sure it’s available for them to use.
  • Enjoy the journey.

(photo via r.bihore)