Failure, user focus and hangover cycling the Golden Gate Bridge

Liam Black sends his latest learnings back to Jude from Silicon Valley, including insights from the likes of Google's innovation guru and the founder of Kiva

Dear Jude

The mix here of entrepreneurial zeal, inventiveness, intelligence, no-holds-barred greed, big big ambitions matched by big big money, and sunshine and great wine makes the head spin.

You cannot visit San Francisco without being forcibly struck by the surreal disconnect between the worlds of the bright shiny entreprenoors – mainly all white – and the homeless people – mainly all black – who wander the streets in states of extreme mental torment.

It is true too that in the Valley money and entrepreneurs too often chase ‘solutions’ to problems that don’t matter all that much  – online gaming, social media, quicker payment methods, how to better sort big data to get us to buy more shit. I spent an evening with Kiva founder Matt Flannery speculating on what could be achieved if half the brain and money power of the Bay Area was dedicated to solving problems that really matter.

But truth is what is going on here – for all its faults and ugly unintended consequences – has changed the way we all work, buy, socialise, interact, consume and communicate and there is much here you can learn from Jude – particularly about ambition and how to deal with failure.

No-one here wants to have a little bit of success with their ideas. They all want – and work as if it is inevitable that they will get – worldwide impact. There is a huge amount of wisdom here about what it takes to start and scale

One thing you hear everywhere here – focus on the user, focus in the user. Forget this at your peril Jude. In the social enterprise world there can be too much focus on the government or funder. User centred design is something you should practise, practise, practise until it becomes your practice. Indeed those lovely and brainy people at IDEO have a free toolkit you can use.

They almost welcome failure here. “We have a word for ‘failure’ in the Valley,” uber-innovator and angel investor Jim Hornthal told me: “it’s ‘experience’ “.

At Google’s Mountain View mission control I took part in a ‘pretotyping’ session – how to validate the market appeal and actual usage of a potential new product by simulating its core experience with the smallest possible investment of time and money.

I learned that 95% of mobile apps don’t make money; four out of five start-ups lose investors’ money and most innovative technologies fail when they hit the real world. “Most new ideas fail Liam,” purred Google innovation whizz Alberto Savoia as he explained his iron Law of Failure, “even when they are very well executed”.

That this is true in one of the most entrepreneurial places on earth should make all social investors choke on their fairtrade chocolate. Wonder what tolerance of failure David Cameron will allow Big Society Capital? Can’t exactly see Nick O’Donohoe and his team after they’ve been carpeted at No 10 saying to his political master: “Look dude we lost a shitload of money but we’ve got some fab experience, yeah?!"

I’m away for my flight home. My list of learnings for us Jude:

  1. Innovators beat ideas
  2. Doing beats talking
  3. Now beats later
  4. Simplify simplify simplify
  5. Data rules – opinions, who cares?
  6. Focus on the user and all else follows
  7. Great team with mediocre idea every time over great idea and mediocre team

And whatever you do don’t ride across the Golden Gate Bridge with a hangover…


Liam Black is co-founder of Wavelength. Contact him via or via Twitter