This is a post by Ben Dowling. He is a software engineer based in London, UK. He is currently lead server engineer at Lightbox.com, prior to that he was co-founder of Geomium, and prior to that he was a founding engineer at Mendeley.It's now been more than 18 months since I wrote about taking the leap from being an employee to working full time on my startup, Geomium. At the time I was full of mixed emotions. I was hugely excited about the possibilities that lay ahead, and also hugely apprehensive about leaving behind the safety net of employment to go all out own my own. Fame and fortune would obviously await me if it all went right, but what would happen if it all went wrong? I had a wife a daughter to support, I couldn't let them down! You've got to feel the fear and do it anyway though, right?
Well, we did fail. Geomium had been in a state of limbo since April last year, but I finally pulled the plug in November when I emailed Geomium's 50,000 users to tell them that we were discontinuing the service. The website will live on in a different form, but the Geomium that we'd envisaged back when I wrote the post, the Geomium we'd been trying to achieve for all that time, the Geomium that we hoped we could create is dead.
Things didn't work out for a whole variety of reasons. I'm sure we didn't fail in any particularly new or exciting way, and probably made mistakes that have been made thousands of times before, so I'm not going to dwell on what went wrong or what we could have done differently. What I am going to focus on is two of the biggest takeaways...
Sometimes you have to learn things first hand
Not only were none of the mistakes we made novel, a lot of them were mistakes I'd read about before and was sure I'd avoid. I then went on to make them anyway. I think the reason is that when you read about mistakes that other people have made, or the right way to do things, it's often in an abstract way that won't apply directly to your own situation. It can therefore be difficult to recognise the advice you've read. However, once you've made the mistake yourself it's a lot more concrete, and more easily recognised in the future.
As valuable as reading all the books, reading all the blogs, and doing all your research is, sometimes it's just a case of getting hard earned experience. The only way to do that is to jump in, and get your hands dirty.
I've definitely got many more mistakes to make, and many more lessons to learn, but hopefully there'll be a few that I'll manage to avoid next time.
The worst case scenario isn't as bad as you think
By far the biggest lesson for me was that failure isn't anywhere near as bad as you think it might be. Even when everything goes wrong, it's actually OK.
Instead of ending up destitute and homeless a load of new opportunities came out of the experience. It was at Seedcamp, where Geomium were finalists in January 2011, that I met one of my partners on BusMapper, which is now a successful side project. Another opportunity came out of a VC pitch. We pitched Geomium to a lot of the top VC firms in London, and it was when pitching Index Ventures that I met Thai Tran. I'm now working full time for his startup Lightbox. Had I not taken the leap I'd have missed these opportunities, and others.
Keep On Failing, Keep On Trying
I'm still really disappointed that we couldn't make Geomium a success, but I'm pleased I tried, and I learnt a lot along the way that I'll be able to apply to other projects in the future.
If you're thinking of taking the leap, but worried about what happens if it all goes wrong, don't. Chances are it will go wrong, but you'll learn a lot along the way and expose yourself to even more opportunities. Once you're not afraid to fail there's no stopping you!
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