May 14

My Graveyard Of 6 Failed Business Ideas – And What I Learnt From Them.

In 2015, I was preparing to leave Germany for a world journey. I was meant to hike in America, explore Central Asia and meet monks and gurus. It was meant to be 12 months. 

12 months turned into almost four years. 

None of the above happened and instead I turned into an entrepreneur and digital nomad.

On the way, I started and failed with six business ideas. One of these fails turned into my first ever public speaking gig on entrepreneurship.

“How to Fuck Up Your Amazon FBA Business” was on 27th of September 2016 in the Dojo Coworking Space in Bali. This is what the event description said:

Viola will share her true story about the first year on Amazon and three products which are – contradictory to what the gurus tell you – not selling. Viola learnt about Fulfillment by Amazon last October and started working on it last December in Mexico. 

In March she launched her first product and quickly expanded to three. Today she is sharing the challenges and fuck-ups of her Amazon journey. This is a practical guide on „How not to run your FBA business“ and will give you ideas on pitfalls and surprises.

The talk was a turning point in my self-employment career. Admitting defeat, I changed direction and took on freelancing work as a content writer, translator, project manager and digital marketing consultant.

This freelancing would eventually turn into Flow SEO, my SEO agency founded in 2018. Today, it has eight team members.

But this article is not a success story. It is a story about failed business ideas – and what I learnt from them. And similar to my talk in 2016, it has one goal:

Give you ideas on pitfalls and surprises when diving into digital entrepreneurship.

Let’s jump in.

Hand-Made, Upcycled Beeswax Candles

  • Time: Late 2015
  • Platform: Fleamarket, website
  • Business case: Commerce, eCommerce

Learning

Product development is a step-by-step process.

You do not have to get it right on the first try. However, make sure your product is minimum viable which means it does the job it is meant to do, e.g. the candle should be burning. 

Our candle did not burn. We had never even tried out the candle. We had just produced 50 of them and brought them to the flea market. We learnt that they don’t burn when our first and only customer returned the candle a few weeks after purchase. This made us stop the idea.

This isn’t the end of a new product. It’s the beginning. You have another chance: Iterate from there to improve. The first draft failing does not mean that you need to give up. Commit to build-measure-learn.

Hand-Made Ceramic Cups From Colombia

  • Time: 2016
  • Platform: Amazon
  • Business case: eCommerce, Amazon FBA
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Learning

You need product-platform fit.

In order to address the right market and audience, you need to understand where they are. 

People shopping for cute gifts are usually not on Amazon. Amazon is where you buy a big cheap mug for the office. Potentially with a funny print.

Our hand-made cups could have done well on Etsy which is focused on creative, hand-made items. Or on gift recommendation websites. Maybe even our own Shopify store fueled by social media and ads. 

Our product was okay but did not fit the platform  that we picked. We thought that the product had failed, when it was really our sales and marketing strategy.

Hand-Made Soaps From Germany

  • Time: 2016
  • Platform: Amazon
  • Business case: eCommerce, Amazon FBA

Learning

Sometimes, you need to learn the same lesson twice.

In our case, we kept adding delicate hand-made gift products to Amazon and wondered why they kept on failing. 

Well, people buy their dish soap on Amazon. People buy soap gifts on Etsy and cute boutique stores or farmers markets. Sometimes, you need to do the same mistake again to learn the lesson.

Leather Toiletry Bag From China

  • Time: 2016
  • Platform: Amazon
  • Business case: eCommerce, Amazon FBA

Learning

Know your numbers – especially in eCommerce.

Up until this product, we had ignored all advice from the Amazon FBA mentors on getting a cheap product from China. We had now turned  to a Chinese production but we still got a premium product with high-quality and higher price per unit than recommended.

Between the vouchers to give away the product to increase rankings and gather reviews, the Amazon platform fees and shipping, our margin evaporated. We simply could not afford to buy more of the pricey inventory.

Generic Alibaba Waist Bag

  • Time: 2016/2017
  • Platform: Amazon
  • Business case: eCommerce, Amazon FBA

Learning 

Your passion and relationship to the product matter.

Sometimes making it work is not what it is all about. The Alibaba bags never inspired me. I never felt passionate or excited about them. 

We gave them up, not because it did not work (it ended up being our best Amazon product) but because it felt totally misaligned.

Printed T-shirts With The Portraits Of My Most Loved Authors

  • Time: 2017
  • Platform: Amazon
  • Business case: Merch by Amazon

Learning

Building an audience is crucial.

Whether it is social media, Google, dark social, events or anything else. Figure out where your 1.000 loyal fans hang out and build that relationship by adding value first.

Getting from 0 to 1 is a skill. Building loyal fans takes more than an Instagram bot.

Lessons Learnt

At the end of 2017, I had about 9.000 EUR in debt from the failed products on Amazon. At the time that was a high and painful price.

Today, I am grateful for every single one of these failed ideas. Yes, it would have been better to commit and persist with some of them – they could have turned out well. 

None of these products or ideas were inherently bad. They were just pretty poorly executed from someone who had little idea about business, marketing, sales and finances (myself at the time).

But ultimately, every single one of them set me on the path of digital entrepreneurship, connected me with like-minded people and opened doors for the  freedom that I have today.

Here are my six lessons from six failed products:

  1. Product development is a step-by-step process.
  2. You need product-platform fit.
  3. Sometimes, you need to learn the same lesson twice.
  4. Know your numbers – especially in eCommerce.
  5. Your passion and relationship to the product matter.
  6. Building an audience is crucial.

One warning or disclaimer related to failing:

I learnt this from a friend at a business mastermind in London two years ago: 

Do more of what works. Follow the things that have traction.

For me, that was SEO and my agency Flow SEO. It has always been easy. 

My friend telling me to do more of what works was  a game changer that set me free. I leaned into my  SEO agency.

As much as we like to joke about our failures and tell ourselves that they made us who we are today – at some point, we gotta stop failing.

Focus on what works. Then, do even more of it.

About the author 

Viola Eva

Viola Eva is passionate about digital entrepreneurship, flow and mindful marketing. As founder and SEO consultant for Flow SEO, she has worked with clients ranging from individual digital entrepreneurs, to software companies to multi-national corporates and government institutions.

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