Projects Fail

This post originally appeared November 26, 2010 on

A few months ago I took a look at the popular whipping boy for failed projects, not to try and clear the good name of requirements but with the intent of making sure we all looked deeper at the causes of project failure than what we’re told in surveys. Its always good to know that someone who has led a very high-profile project that failed validates my instinct that requirements are not the cause, but just one of many causes, for why projects fail.

Wesabe, an online personal finance application that went under earlier in 2010, failed at many things. Its co-founder, Marc Hedlund, takes a detailed debrief on why his company failed. His primary reason for the site’s failure? Poor technical decisions and implementation. The second reason? A poor understanding how how to meet users needs, but not what their needs actually are. The entire article is worth a read, but I’d like to point out a couple of things that really spoke to me from what Marc said:

You’ll hear a lot about why company A won and company B lost in any market, and in my experience, a lot of the theories thrown about – even or especially by the participants – are utter crap. A domain name doesn’t win you a market; launching second or fifth or tenth doesn’t lose you a market. You can’t blame your competitors or your board or the lack of or excess of investment.  Focus on what really matters: making users happy with your product as quickly as you can, and helping them as much as you can after that.  If you do those better than anyone else out there you’ll win.
I think back to all the products and software I’ve purchased over the years that I have dearly loved and one thing really jumps out at me… there was a nearly instant attraction to it that I was unable to shake. In short, they did make me happy, even if that happiness came not from what a great product it was but from how I felt about the purchase. It didn’t matter if the product helped me be more productive or more knowledgeable, but it had to satisfy some inner itch that nothing else could scratch.
I am, of course, enormously sad that Wesabe lost and the company closed. I don’t agree with those who say you should learn from your successes and mostly ignore your failures; nor do I agree with those who obsess over failures for years after (as I have done in the past). I’m hoping that by writing this all out I can offload it from my head and hopefully help inform other people who try to start companies in the future.
Failure hurts, but it teaches if you don’t obsess over it, incorporate its lessons, and most importantly, share that wisdom with others. Thank you Marc Hedlund, for taking the time to share with us.