Lessons from a failure... Shutting down a failed startup attempt

NOTE: Since publishing this post, I have pivoted Content Allies to a new offering and have finally hit success. For the sake of keeping this raw, I have left the unedited post below.

Failure. It fucking sucks. 

In November, I started up a business in stealth mode that would eventually become Content Allies. I signed a few early customers in stealth mode, and then publicly launched the company at the start of January.

The problem I was aiming to solve was one I had previously experienced myself.

It was to have reliable resources to support content creators, podcasters and writers like myself to help with the monotonous parts of content marketing.

We were basically trying to become a “Content Marketing Support Agency”.

We got interest.
We got leads.
And I even signed quite a few initial customers.

But I’m shutting it down… And in this article I am going to share why and the lessons learned.

Lesson #1 - You need to be profitable from day 1

This is probably the biggest pain point I hit as I started this service. Early on, I just wanted to get some customers on and serve them. We started doing this, and I am glad we did because it quickly became apparent that it took far more time to serve people than I had originally estimated.

Immediately, Content Allies started to become a money pit that was sucking the profits from Lead Cookie as we served customers at a loss. It took more in labor costs to serve our customers than we made in cash from them.

As I looked at raising the prices, I got resistance from the marketplace. They compared us to marketplaces like Upwork and didn’t see enough value in what we offered to pay a premium. 

Lesson #2 - Account access is a bitch

One of the logistical problems that I knew at the start was account access. In order for our team to service our customers, it involved getting access to their LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Buffer, Website, Hootsuite, Youtube, etc… 

2-factor authentication became a complete nightmare as we had to hop on calls with every customer to gain access. If we needed access to one site, this would be manageable, but it quickly became apparent that we would eventually have someone just focusing on account access if we were to scale.

Lesson #3 - Build on your own foundation

One of the mistakes I made when building Lead Cookie was that I built on LinkedIn’s foundation. As a result, our business is vulnerable to LinkedIn changing their platform at any moment and making us irrelevant.

With Content Allies, we were a bit safer in the fact that we relied on no single platform as the core of our business… BUT we were instead building our business on each of our customers' individual foundations. 

They each used different tools, different email providers, social scheduling tools, and website hosting providers.

This quickly became apparent that the customer could easily start throwing wrenches in our whole system without even realizing the havoc it would create on our processes.

If you look at Design Pickle, they do design. They own their foundation. They do the work, and they provide the deliverable. 

If you look at WPCurve, they had Wordpress as this stable core base. Sure, the customer could screw it up, but it wouldn’t totally change overnight. Wordpress was stable and was not going to be disrupted overnight. 

Content Allies had no foundation. We were floating on top of a ton of tools and trying to be the glue that held them together. Ultimately, this was going to be far too complex.

Lesson #4 - Keep it simple

Ultimately, Content Allies is failing because it’s too damn complex. It’s basically an agency style service at a productized service pricing.

In talking with customers, they weren’t willing to pay agency prices…  but they wanted agency level service if they were going to pay more than a VA.

The service was too complex for the price point. We tried to solve too big of a problem, instead of focusing on one niche. 

This led us to having complex pricing models that customers didn’t like.
This led us to having to do onboarding calls with customers. 
This led us to complex operations which led to lots of mistakes.

Complexity sucks if you want to build a business to scale.

Lesson #5 - Innovating is hard as fuck, steal models from others

I could probably stick on this path, and maybe I could pull something out of this.  
Maybe I could figure out a model and way to make this work… 

OR, I could model after other companies that have proven success (like I did with Lead Cookie) and move way faster. 

I find that I learn this lesson every time I start something new.
When I try to innovate, I tend to fail. 

When I simply model after a proven business model, and then market and sell the shit out of it, I succeed. 

Some of you reading this may be the next Zuckerberg. 
I’m not.

So I should probably take the advice I wrote in a post a long time ago called Why you should steal your business ideas from others

Lesson #6 - Just because you could build something doesn’t mean you should

I say that Content Allies is a failure, but in reality I am giving up on it. 

I could build it, and I could make it work.
But ultimately it feels like I am pushing a boulder up a hill.
It’s more complex than what I want. 

And it would never scale and create the freedom that I desire.

The business model COULD work, but that isn’t enough.

I want the businesses I build to create more freedom for myself, my team and our customers. This business would hit so many operational headaches as it grew that it would ultimately end up creating less freedom. 

Choosing to shut this down was not easy. 

Especially because I know that it could still work. 

One of the mottos I have followed for years is “If it’s not a heck yes, then it’s a heck no.”

Lesson #7 - It’s OK to fail

I spent about an hour this afternoon curled up in a ball on the couch feeling sick to my stomach.
Last night I had a near anxiety attack. 

Failing sucks. I am not going to lie about that.

It eats at you, especially when you make big, bold public commitments on what you are going to build.

But this is simply part of the fucking process. 
It’s part of being an entrepreneur.

Right before I made this decision to throw in the towel on Content Allies, I had a call with my mentor Alex McClafferty. He reminded me that before WPCurve, he and Dan attempted about 5 different businesses together that were all failures… 

They spun things up, shut them down, and then moved on.
Eventually, they hit the nail on the head with WPCurve and went big.

Before Lead Cookie, I had a ton more failures that I never wrote about. 

This is just another failure for the books… except this time I am actually committed to sharing this all publicly.

What’s next?

At the time of this writing… I don’t know.

Maybe I will pivot Content Allies to a totally new offering.
Maybe I will launch a new venture from scratch.

One thing I know is I have learned a ton of shit from this process. 

I’ve learned to align my businesses with my purpose

And I have the harsh reminder that I need to model and steal after proven business models.

So where will I take this next? 
I am not quite sure.
But I’m not giving up. 

And I’m going to keep building. 

Improve your sales, marketing and leadership skills

Sign up for my 10 part email course