Learning From Failure: One Startup’s Story of What Went Wrong

Devver, maker of developer coding tools and TechStars 2008 graduate, announced last Monday that it would be shutting down after being active for nearly two years. News of a startup closing up shop is never a fun thing to hear about, but fortunately many lessons can be gleaned from the experiences of the entrepreneurs. Today, co-founder Ben Brinckerhoff provided just such lessons with an insightful blog on the Devver journey and why he and co-founder Dan Mayer are choosing to move on.

An unfortunate truth about startup culture is that a lot of the most valuable lessons are learned when entrepreneurs fail to heed them. Some notice their mistakes early on and can pivot their products and business toward a more successful future, but sometimes they don’t realize their mistakes until its too late and there is nothing that can be done.

This was the case with Brinckerhoff, Mayer and their startup, Devver, which they say failed to focus enough on one of the most important parts of building a startup: customer development. As Brinckerhoff points out in Monday’s blog post, the company assumed they had found their minimum viable product (MVP), and as a result focused more on product development than listening to customers’ needs.

“You can teach a hacker business, but you can’t make him or her get excited about it, which means it may not get the time or attention it deserves.”
– Ben Brinckerhoff

“Our mistake at that point was to go ‘heads down’ and focus on building the accelerator while minimizing our contact with users and customers (after all, we knew how great it was and time spent talking to customers was time we could be hacking!),” writes Brinckerhoff. “We should have [been] asking, ‘Is there an even simpler version of this product that we can deliver sooner to learn more about pricing, market size, and technical challenges?’.”

Both Brinckerhoff and his co-founder are “technical founders,” which means their specialities are on the development side, not the business side. The only other person the pair hired to help out, a fellow software developer, also fits into the technical side of the startup. Brinckerhoff says this may have been one of the hurdles that led to the downfall of the company.

“Looking back, it would have been to our advantage to have a third founder who really loved the business aspect of running a startup,” writes Brinckerhoff. “Having solely technical founders is non-optimal. You can teach a hacker business, but you can’t make him or her get excited about it, which means it may not get the time or attention it deserves.”

Brinckerhoff also adds that having a split team located in different states contributed to the company’s struggles, but it seems to me it was more of a hassle than a reason for failure. Split teams are actually growing in popularity and probability for success, as we discussed earlier in the year with companies like Blank Label and chocri. Devver undoubtedly had issues with its split setup, but its likely that it didn’t contribute toward its closing as significantly as the other errors.

Regardless of this issue, its clear that the Devver team learned and shared some valuable lessons about the importance of customer development. As Steve Blank noted during his presentation at last week’s Startup Lessons Learned conference, startups shouldn’t be too eager to product management before customer development. Devver may have jumped the gun a bit in terms of over developing their product, so learn from their mistake and remember to develop your customers before throwing the kitchen sink at them.

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