The price of our success was failure

Last updated 08:25 28/08/2014
Shehan Wijetillake
BRIGHT FUTURE: Shehan Wijetillake.

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I failed. There I said it, I failed. It's a lot easier to deal with failure once you come to terms with it, learn from it and move on.

Accepting failure is never easy, especially when you pour your blood, sweat and tears into a product only to see it never reach the levels of success you earmarked it for.

We always hear the stories of the college grad who slept in their car while building the next big thing or the kid who lived in their parents' basement to save money, but we never hear about those who hustled just as hard and made similar outrageous sacrifices and yet still failed.

I was the co-founder of a tech start company called 2ndtext. It was a service that connected students to buy and sell their used textbooks, the easy way - come to think of it that was our slogan too.

We identified basic customer pain points and undertook very limited research. This was one of our biggest problems.

At the time we knew very little how business worked and underestimated the importance of market research.

Furthermore, we thought - specifically I thought - we were on to the next big thing.

We dreamed big but then a natural consequence of this was that we were very secretive about the concept and kept the idea in stealth more until launch day. I even made my girlfriend at the time sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Looking back, it would rank as one of the most stupid things I have ever done.

Despite our limited knowledge and experience in this industry, we understood the importance of hard work and we relentlessly worked towards achieving success despite having very limited resources. We hustled our butts to make a killer product and service, but looking back we ultimately failed.

Unfortunately, with entrepreneurship and business in general, determination, hard work and perseverance don't always correlate to success.

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Failure can be interpreted and looked at in many different ways. It is very subjective and there is no way of quantifying whether something is a failure or not, as there are many variables at play. Failure for me personally was not meeting the expectations and goals I set out for 2ndtext.

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Maybe my expectations and goals were too high and I was simply being unrealistic. Or maybe the market changed and therefore the demand for a service like 2ndtext diminished.

Either way, I was left with that sick feeling in my stomach as the site went from being very active to slowly losing traction.

There were many variables at play but it was ultimately losing the hunger and drive as the priorities in my life changed.

But what lessons can I take from 2ndtext?

Without doubt I learned the most valuable lessons of my life during those few years, both professionally and personally.

I also met some wonderful people along the journey, and my friendship with my co-founder grew to new heights. We were able to relate to each other through our moments of struggles and success and we had a greater appreciation for each other's talents and skills.

2ndtext has also largely contributed to the success in my professional career where upon graduating from university I was able to differentiate myself from the rest of the pack.

I had taken risks, I had invested my own money but more importantly I had greater insight and perspective as to how to run a business and the importance of serving your bottom line.

I have just finished up as an account executive and am now heading up the marketing division at razzbri Digital and working on a disruptive piece of technology that will change the way advertising agencies manage their recruitment resource.

So was 2ndtext really a failure? We had more than 15,000 members, 20,000-plus textbooks listed and our services spread from University of Auckland to AUT to finally Victoria University, with some sprinkle effect in the South Island universities.

We built relationships with student-represented bodies and 2ndtext slowly became known and widespread.

I was at work one day and my colleague advised me to list my textbooks on 2ndtext ... I nodded and silently snickered. Little did he know.

Was 2ndtext really a failure? It really depends on whose eyes you look through. But for me personally, it never met my expectations.

If I were to pass on one key lesson what would it be? It's quite simple really. Ask yourself why you are in it in the first place. Is it for the money or are you trying make a positive difference in people's lives?

If you fall into the former category, you won't go very far simply because taking a product from idea to launch is an emotional rollercoaster and you can't get off when you please. You have to take the highs with the lows and trust me there will be a lot of lows. You won't see the light at the end of the tunnel and you will have to muster every bit of perseverance and resilience within you.

If, however, you are out to make a positive difference, it's more likely than not that it's an idea that you believe in, something you have an unhealthy obsession towards.

Although it may sound a little bit cliched asking yourself, "do you enjoy what you do?" it's one of those things you have to do. It's a binary question, so if you are able to answer yes then great, congratulations. If you find yourself questioning yourself, or worse responding in the negative, then it's time for you to re-evaluate your position.

In conclusion, this venture and experience may be a pyrrhic victory but the gains far outweigh the losses.

My co-founder and I enjoyed the 20-mile marches. We went from "ideas men" to being "men of action".

We strategised and led the charge, we were creative and innovative in the way we went about our affairs and at several points of the journey we were flanked by hidden costs and events, although we kept going and raised the 2ndtext flag into the minds of students.

We know for sure we were instrumental in helping more than a handful of students to save costs and/or make partial returns on their initial expenditure.

The knowledge and insight has given me invaluable wisdom and a practical understanding of business operations, corporate arrangements and commercial affairs.

My co-founder would agree with me on this - it has given us that type of rare confidence and intelligence that can only be achieved and acquired through a strenuous experience ... because a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.

This is something that not many people could understand. Nevertheless, this venture or experience was not my peak, nor was it my valley ... it's my launch pad.

So is this the end of the road for me? Not by any stretch, it's only the beginning. 


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