Why our growth initiatives fail


Emphasys Software: a company you've never heard of

Emphasys Software is a niche vertical market enterprise software vendor. That's a mouthful, I know.

It means we focus on niche markets—little ones. Not billion dollar ones that the VC guys like to chase.

We focus on vertical markets—domain-rich, specific markets where the barrier to entry is high because you can't just walk in and be an expert. You want to talk about the complexities of federal compliance rules in housing subsidies? We'll have fun.

We focus on enterprise software—you know, the core products that a company can't live without. They may decide not to renew a license for their online benefits management solution, but they're not going to toss out payroll. Know what I mean?

So that's what we do—and I'm explaining it so you understand a bit about the world I live in. If you're not in one of our vertical markets, you'd likely never hear of us. That's ok.

As their VP of Software Engineering, I really have two jobs. The first is to help us (and bring my team to help us) if one of our businesses get into a (technical) bind. The other is to drive organic growth via innovation.

That's business speak for, “design and build new products that get traction in the market and drive our revenues up.”

Have you ever asked someone to innovate on demand?

It's like asking someone to get creative. It's like asking someone to come up with a new joke (out of thin air). It's like asking someone to write a song—come on, you've got a great voice and you know how to play a guitar. Sure Carrie Dils can do it, but most of us can't.

Innovation, in my book, is more like a chess game than drawing art. It's about strategy and seeing patterns – patterns you hope you can capitalize on.

But few people are good at chess on their first try. More often than not, we all start out sucking. And only the people who play a lot, and get a lot of exposure get better.

So with that all said, I'd like to walk you thru five reflections I've had about my time with Emphasys and all the ways I've seen my own growth initiatives fail. Sure some have succeeded, but they're not nearly as fun to learn from.

The Top Five Reasons Growth Initiatives Fail

1. We starve the initiative.

I once worked on an idea that I thought would seriously be amazing in one of our markets. We even built a small proof of concept that actually worked and would let customers experience the benefits of the product. People liked it. A few talked about ordering it. But we never put a full team on the court to push it out into the market. So the net result was that it was constantly in a state of “almost launching.”

Give your initiatives a dedicated set of resources to make sure it gets over the finish line. And the finish line isn't the product is fully coded. If it's not launched, there's no scotch for you!

2. We overload the initiative.

Oh yes, you can do the exact opposite. A few years before I joined Emphasys, I worked on a skunkworks project to build a new platform. But the reason we had to do the skunkworks project was because the effort we'd tried beforehand had been overstaffed (and overfunded). Trust me when I tell you that putting 200 people on a project that should have 20 on it can be just as bad for you.

3. We face friendly-fire.

I'm not telling you something new when I tell you that rewrites suck. It's not the technical work of building a replacement product. I don't mind that. It's not introducing new technology to make the code more efficient, or a more pleasant interface that bothers me. It's the friendly-fire.

Our own teams have often been the folks that draw a line in the sand and say, “if it doesn't duplicate every single feature (even if it was never used), we can't roll it out.”

I once failed to properly train one of our staff on our new rewrite. So when they got on site to demo the new product to a customer, they realized they didn't know how to do something and they promptly switched to the legacy product and demoed that instead. True story, bro.

4. We expect success.

I'm the worst at this. I stepped into Emphasys with a proven record of new product development and product launches. Over the last seven years, I'd bet not even half have seen the light of day.

Did I suddenly get worse? Maybe. But the reality is that the more you do it (and here we're doing it a lot) the more failure you see. They may be small. You might not call them a failure (failing fast has massive benefits). But they don't result in launches.

And the thing you need to know is that it's a reality. Not every idea will result in a product launch or growth. Now imagine putting a person in charge of a growth initiative that has never done it before. Imagine they fail. Think they'll ever want to do it again?

5. We don't quit.

If we work on a project that takes off, we call it a winner. If we work on an initiative that fails, we call it a wipeout. But my favorite name for a certain kind of growth initiative is the walking wounded. You know the kind—you keep thinking success is around the corner. So you keep investing. You keep trying. You don't accept that it's time to quit. And that's an expensive way to learn.

Why I enjoy my work with Emphasys

You may wonder, after reading about all of my failure, why I'd stay. After all, surely there's something I could do where I had more success. Right?

But here's the thing. Most of us really suck at learning from success. We love to quickly attribute it to things we did—even if we weren't the reason for a win. It could have been timing. Or luck.

Every time I fail (which is a bunch), I learn more humility, more patience, and am more willing to try other things. Serial innovators have to get used to failure. I know it's cool to say we rather just get things right the first time. And that may work if you only want to try one thing, one time.

But if you want to learn, and grow, you have to be in a place where you can take intelligent risks—a lot. And Emphasys is the place where I do that. And they don't seem to mind (as long as I promise not to make the same exact dumb mistake over again).

That's a deal I can handle.