The latest piece in my Celebrating Failure series for SocialStory.
SocialStory continues its Celebrate Failure series with a contribution from Kevin F. Adler, an entrepreneur and applied sociologist. He is the founder and CEO of inthis, a social invite platform for connecting people around their shared experiences. His first book, The Great Catalyst: How Disasters Can Bring Us Together or Tear Us Apart, will be published by UPA later this year.
Tell us about the social enterprise you founded and the challenge you experienced.
After a year in Mexico as an Ambassador of Goodwill for Rotary International, I signed up to participate in a Startup Weekend-EDU and pitched my vision for alumn.us, a kick-starter for under-served schools. My vision was to build a product that would level the playing field in alumni engagement between public high schools and private high schools in the US.
The average private high school has an alumni giving rate of 23%, while the average public high school has an alumni giving rate of less than .1%. I figured more than 1 out of every 1000 public high school alumni would make a donation if they were asked. Indeed, initial surveys confirmed that one-third said they would donate, and up to two-thirds said they would donate if initially reminded of positive memories from school like favorite classes, teachers, or activities.
We won the start-up competition, formed a small team, and I served as CEO as 2-3 of us worked on it for the next year. We raised money for local schools and increased alumni engagement exponentially at a few schools, but made at least one major mistake that doomed us.
My passion has always been to help the most disadvantaged high schools build strong alumni networks with a high level of fundraising. We picked pilot schools from disadvantaged communities with no preexisting alumni networks and little outside fundraising for school needs. The result? Months of hand-holding for a very modest result. This isn’t to blame the schools, as we were still figuring out our processes and how to empower students to fundraise from alumni effectively. As a result, we never saw the impact we envisioned, and decided to pivot after we finally gained valuable insights from alumni donors about why they gave and what would make them engage further.
We ultimately pivoted alumn.us to inthis, an angel-backed startup that I now run in San Francisco. inthis is a social invite platform for helping people easily keep in touch and stay connected around shared experiences. inthis pro helps event organizers, businesses, and sales professionals build relationships with people beyond events.
What do you wish you did differently with alumn.us?
We should have selected pilot schools—public or private, high school or college—that already had strong alumni networks and lots of fundraising, and just put the processes online. This would have helped us test and prove our model, so that we could learn how the most successful alumni networks work in order to best serve schools with little to no alumni engagement or fundraising infrastructure.
What did you learn from this experience?
We let our mission interfere with our progress. That seems like a strange statement to make, but it’s true. By focusing solely on our longer-term goal rather than embracing what would have been pragmatic and instructive, we frittered away months of valuable time. I’ve since learned to balance vision with pragmatism.
What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs experiencing failure?
Quit and join my team at inthis. We are a team of designers, developers, and business people, with advisors that include the co-founders of Reddit, Hipmunk, Identified, UserVoice, and Seesmic.
Entrepreneurs should also realize that they need to talk about failure before they “succeed.” It shows your courage and character, and makes people want to help you succeed next time because they see that you’re vulnerable and real and awesome. Talking about failure anytime is cool, but it is objectively cooler if you do it before you’re famous for selling your company for a billion and impacting a million lives.
And finally, as entrepreneurs striving to make a difference in the world, let’s move beyond the “failure” and “success” jargon and embrace more nuanced and cutting specifics. The idea of “Celebrating Failure” is clear and practical and much-needed, and prompted me and others to contribute to this series. But we can avoid labels of “failure” in describing setbacks and mistakes and wrong decisions and goals that have not been achieved yet.
At a recent Fireside Potluck: On Resolutions at my house, a few friends brought up an interesting example: there is no failure for a baby learning to walk. Advanced-level walkers (most adults) wouldn’t look at a baby and say, “look at that baby failing to walk! What a failure.” Nor would a hyper-cognizant baby look to adults to say “I’m making too many mistakes in attempting this activity. Maybe I should call this a failure and try something else?” No, of course not. Instead, the adults help the baby and encourage it along and offer it pointers, and know that the baby will be successful eventually in learning to walk – or run, or drive, or fly.
As entrepreneurs, we tend to bite off more than we can chew and not reach out to others for help. If success is not coming your way, rather than writing off the whole thing (or yourself) as a failure, perhaps a few baby steps and a helping hand will make all the difference.
Thank you, Kevin, for celebrating failure with us. You can follow Kevin on Twitter and say hey at @heykfa, or check out his blog at kevinfadler.com. If you are interested in sharing your failure story, or know someone who is, email us at email@example.com.