Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Do I Have to Embrace Failure If It's Just Our First Date?

There's been so much blogging about how important the experience of failure is in the development of entrepreneurs, that I feel compelled to speak up for the forgotten: entrepreneurs in denial. You see, I think I might be one of them.

Here's the story: A few years ago, I decided I wanted to set up my own bath and body products business. The idea was to develop the products, build a first stage retail base that would generate some cash flow, then hire someone to run fulfillment and manage retail channels until the appeal ran out. I figured, this would be a great hedge against the ebb and flow of legal work, plus it would give me a great network of contacts in e-fulfillment, marketing etc.

The beauty business is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, it's a virtual business; most small brands outsource 99% of their operations. There are multi-million dollar operations that are run by 5-6 people in Canada. Second, it's all about who you know. The best packaging designers, formulators, and contract manufacturers are closely guarded secrets. This means that getting a business off the ground depends on who you know, and whether they like your concept.(Unless, of course, you want to go the "artisanal" route, and mix your own concoctions in your kitchen and sell them at gift shows. This tends not to scale, unless you are an 80-year old Eastern European woman with the face of a 12-year old.)

I was lucky. I knew someone who hooked me up with the right people, and they loved what I was doing. (My favourite start-up lesson: If you ask people stuff, they'll often tell you what you need to know.) We had a list of products that we prepared, and the first three were soft launched through a web site.

I named the business Corner Office Beauty(Success is Beautiful), and bartered with one of the best consumer marketing people in the business to create the copy. He got in touch with his inner female and came up with some great stuff, such as the tag line "With All You Have to Offer, Why Aren't You in The Corner Office?"

My favourite launch product is our hand cream, Ballbuster. It also turned out to be our hero product in the first year, attracting lots of press, buzz and orders:

I am particularly fond of the box, which has a quote from The Art Of War and a definition (Ballbuster(noun): A task that is arduous, demanding and punishing. 2. A demanding woman who destroys men's confidence.). Others loved the illustration on the lid of the jar (It's a nutcracker. What else WOULD it be?)

Here's some of the press:

Valentine's Day became a big time for our soap, "Transition Man". Things generally ramped up nicely.

But then I discovered something: to really scale a start-up, you really have to hate your day job. And I don't. I love being a lawyer, and I love my clients. For the last few years, my day job has been really busy, and I've let Corner Office slowly, slowly recede. I shut down the e-commerce section because having to work on financing documents while packing and fulfilling orders is not a great way to spend a week night. My retail channels are wondering when I will deliver something new, which means I have to roll out the other products we designed and formulated soon.

As I write this, I am also thinking what to do about one celebrity -backed product that we have been almost-launching for a few years now. If any of you get involved in celebrity endorsements, talk to me first and I will share special stories. Dealing with the talent is lots of fun, but you will end up starting a lot of sentences "Oh honey," for several months afterward.

I may have to use the "F" word soon, but the nature of a virtual business is that you can stay in denial for lengthy periods of time. (Not that I'd know anything about that.) In the mean time, I have one last lesson I've learned so far: it's really, really hard to sell lip balm. You have to make it in large production runs, for one thing, and it's harder to get your retail channels to take it unless you also create appropriate point of sale display boxes and collateral for it.

This means that I now have so much top of the line all natural lip balm (called "Whistleblower") lying about, I can't tell you. Come to my office for a closing, and you will get some. Stopping by for a license? Same thing.

So, if there is anyone nearby who would me to donate like some lip balm for a fundraising event, let me know. It is great stuff (flavoured with mint and lemon, to keep your breath free of the stench of corporate corruption)

I might embrace failure at some point, but right now, I'd prefer it if some of you embraced lip balm.