Why failing is not necessarily a problem for a small business

Elizabetta Camilleri discusses a key mistake she made in her business SalesGossip, and how learning from it made the company stronger.

There has been much talk about failing fast, and living in a digital world certainly makes this possible. For today’s entrepreneurs, testing an idea doesn’t involve the same level of risk as it once did, especially in the e-commerce space. The key is what you do with your test information and how you react – if you can pivot quickly then failing really isn’t the faux pas it once was.

As with the military term coined by Oliver Bailey Smith, the highly decorated combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War: ‘We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction’. Pivoting is much the same principle.

But what about if you get something that’s fairly core to your business proposition slightly wrong? Well it’s the same principle – as a start-up, you treat it like a test, you learn and you pivot, quickly. Being small and agile enough to pivot quickly is a huge advantage.

Knowing what your customer wants

Here is a real-life example to illustrate how easily it can happen but also how easy it is to pivot and get right back on track – and learn a few things in the process.

When we launched SalesGossip.co.uk, the start-up with the inside scoop on events and promotions from your favourite fashion and beauty brands, we genuinely thought it was all about location. How wrong we were! Two years later, and after learning many tough lessons, we’re still here and going strong.

I sometimes think our little mistake started even before we started the company, so let’s start there. SalesGossip came about because I had one of those very rare and wonderful eureka moments. I went shopping between meetings one day and realised my favourite shop had been having a sale for two weeks; everything good was gone. I was disappointed, to put it mildly. I was sure I was missing something but having asked all my friends how they found out when their favourite brands had sales, it was a combination of being signed up to the brand’s email newsletter or because they happened to be walking by the store. There was no app or website that listed all the sales in one place so I decided to create one myself.

Initially, we thought that shoppers would want to browse sales by location, and yes, perhaps that was because of my location-based eureka moment. So we built the website focusing on features such as geo-location, maps and special sections for popular shopping areas in different cities.

It didn’t take us long to figure out we were wrong in our presumption about what people wanted. After analysing the data and feedback collected from our members, it was clear that we had a good idea but that people wanted to access the sales information differently. They favoured browsing by product category (eg dresses, shoes, etc) or style (eg tartan, neon colors, etc) or simply by brand or retailer (Banana Republic, John Lewis etc), as opposed to location.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Shoppers wanted to browse our website in the same way they would browse and search their favourite online stores; by product category and lists of curated products.

Catering for demand

As soon as we realised the error of our thinking, we pivoted the service towards what our members wanted and needed. The look and feel of SalesGossip.co.uk changed. Instead of landing on a map and browsing the sales that way, you now selected the product category you are interested in and browse from there. The information that members receive now is personalised to the brands they like rather than the area where they normally shop.

In some ways, this was one of the best mistakes we ever made because we learned so much, and so early on in the life of the business. It has definitely contributed to our continued success, and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons why we were oversubscribed for our second round of funding. We learned, incredibly quickly, that testing, and sometimes being surprised by our testing, was going to be part of the process of developing our business. And, most importantly, that, if we learned something was not working, and pivoted, things would be okay.

It has made us much stronger as a result. As an entrepreneur, there is a danger that you take everything personally because you put your heart and soul into every idea and you want every idea to work. But we quickly learned that there was no shame in pivoting when an idea didn’t quite work. It took the fear of failure away – something I think made us very attractive to our investors – they knew we weren’t going to waste their money.

But not being afraid to fail and the importance of pivoting weren’t the only things we gleaned from our lucky mistake – we learned that we had to trust the data and we learned that we absolutely had to be customer-centric.

If our service didn’t resonate with our current and prospective members, well, we simply wouldn’t have a business. It was a stark realisation.

Today, we remain focused on delivering what our members want and data is increasingly important to our business. So much so, that we are investing in data mining technology so we can increase personalisation and really dovetail promotions with our member’s interests.

As an agile entrepreneur, you have a huge advantage in today’s business landscape. Don’t be afraid to fail – learn as much as you can from the experience – and pivot to get back on track.

Further reading on business mistakes


Elizabetta Camilleri

Elizabetta is Founder & CEO of Shopological, a mobile and online platform powered by data, AI and real time customer insights.

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