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9 Lessons to Learn from Fail Faire UK 2012

By Wayan Vota on July 23, 2012


We had an amazing sharing of failure at Fail Faire UK 2012, and amidst the laughter at how wrong we can be in deploying information and communication technologies to accelerate social and economic development, there were key lessons to learn. Lessons that cost millions of dollars, and unless we internalize them, will cost untold millions in future repetition.

So in the hopes that we can reduce future fails and increase success in ICT4D, I present to you the 9 lessons to learn from Fail Faire UK 2012:

  1. Failure will happen: When I am asked how to avoid failure I say that you should hire optimists. Why? Because failure will happen. It is the natural, normal, and valid result of pushing the boundaries of what is possible to scale from pilots to real impact. If you are not failing, you’re not trying hard enough, and you need optimists to recognize that failure is the mark of innovation and risk taking – key to growth and actual social and economic development that we all espouse to achieve.
  2. Timing is everything: Martin Harris worked hard on his startup idea, then took a two week vacation. On the day he sought financing for his venture, his first day back from vacation, Lehman Brothers collapsed. His grand plans of a venture capital-based future disappeared faster than the elevator ride to his appointment. Note to self: when you have a good idea, move fast as you never know what tomorrow brings.
  3. Know your target market habits: Harsha Liyanage thought farmers in Sri Lanka would be excited about trading via SMS. After two years of development and two years in deployment, he learned that farmers don’t trade via SMS. They want face-to-face interactions with local actors. The farmer’s wife or children do love modern technologies, and by leveraging their excitement for Facebook, Harsha was able to move from failure with farmers to success with social networking as a medium to connect farming families with new buyers.
  4. People are proud of their heritage: Patrick Hall thought he could help Nepalese localize software into the local language to accelerate ICT adoption, but found multiple challenges – donors wanted to run their own programs, private software companies wanted to do their own localization, and Nepalese wanted either an exact translation (without agreement on what “exact” was) or just use English. I’ve found this same issue in Tanzania, where the Microsoft translation of Windows and Office into Kiswahili is disliked because its Kenyan-accented Kiswahili.
  5. Take the money and run: Victor Lyons somehow bungled venture capital offerings of over $80 million when he founded an ecommerce startup, and after his business, marriage, and life went down in flames, found himself in India trying to used printed brochures to educate people who couldn’t read. Rather than giving up, he founded a literacy program, which received over a million dollars in funding – but none for salaries. His lesson learned multiple times is that money, in fact, does make the world go around, and we should not be too arrogant or too humble to accept it.
  6. Plan for succession: Too often we invest inordinate amount of responsibility and success into a few key actors. Allan McNeil Jackson did in his company, Aptivate, and when his two key salespeople left, it almost destroyed the company. It took every member of the organization rethinking their role and joining in the sales process to revive relationships and the company’s future.
  7. Be convinced of your convictions: Pamela McLean has spent the last 12 years trying to convince others of the worth and opportunity if development in Nigeria, often in a Quixotic effort to raise awareness that Nigeria does have promise and possibility. Yet she has not given up hope or slowed her pace of advocacy even though she was easily the most senior participant in Fail Faire UK 2012. For her energy alone, we should all be humbled.
  8. The only constant is change: Tomi Davies single-handedly worked to bring One Laptop per Child to Nigeria. He was amazingly successful – President Obasanjo agreed to buy 1 million XO laptops from Nicholas Negroponte in 2007, jumpstarting the OLPC program. In fact, that deal is why the XO is green and white – the colors of the Nigerian flag. Unfortunately, Tomi then had to contend with 6 different Minsters of Education over the next 6 years, a revolving ministerial door that is not unique to Africa.
  9. And??? The eight speakers at Fail Faire UK 2012 do not have a monopoly on failure. What other lessons are there to learned from failure? What have you learned? Don’t be shy – share them in the comments. We’ve bared our souls and its time for you to do the same.

Fail Faire UK 2012 was generously hosed by the GSMA Development Fund and organized by Inveneo. If you’d like to attend the next FailFaire, be sure to sign up for announcements of future events. We have fails on tap for East Africa and Washington DC in 2012 – failure has gone global!


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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4 Comments to “9 Lessons to Learn from Fail Faire UK 2012”

  1. Beris Gwynne says:

    Having found myself on both sides of the ‘philanthropic’ equation, I greatly admire the work of colleagues who are trying to create retribution-free space for learning from failure. Sadly, there is much to do in this area – both within our organisations and in relation to our donors – let along the wider public. So thank you for sharing the 9 lessons from fail faire uk 2012

    That said, I don’t think ‘take the money and run’ is a helpful way of capturing the lesson learned by Victor Lyons – which was to understand and make provision for the costs of being in the business of helping others, especially if you are planning for ‘quality’ in delivery against your objectives and accountability to stakeholders.

    ‘Civic action’ is too often compromised because the competition for funding results in our discounting the real costs of what we need to do to achieve our goals. . . . or because access to funds skews our intentions and blinds us to issues of legitimacy and accountability to primary stakeholders.

  2. Lotts says:

    I attended, and it was a very excellent event – entertaining but also educational.

  3. John Hawker says:

    I have to admit I strongly dislike “Fail Fare”, I’ve seen too much money wasted that I predicted would fail, and perhaps too many good and more viable projects that aren’t linked into the “funding network”, yeah mine included 🙂 – that are not funded to be impressed by Fail Fare.

    So take my perhaps bitter comments with a grain of salt if you wish, but I see a far more seriosu problem with the story above.

    But the biggest problem I have is just who is disappointed, and disillusioned.

    A number of times I’ve been asked to try and come along and pick up the pieces behind other failed very well funded projects, ironically when I had no funding.

    And asked to fulfill the broken promises to the local communities that other couldn’t deliver.

    And this is my problem with Fail Fare

    I keep seeing in this article “So we lost X$’s”, and “We got emotionally hurt”

    But I don’t see anything about how the damage to the communities who had promises made to them time and again, and then those broken promises that failed to deliver, whilst to them what huge sums of $’s where spent.

    Those communities suffer from broken dreams, shattered hope, and see the “west” as yet again, the people with $’s, and safety nets that allow them to walk in, play with their lives and who can easily safely walk away when it,

    Fails . . . . .

    It isn’t a fare, and it isn’t fair.

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    And your overall point – that we should not be failing again and again, is the very reason I organize Fail Faires. I am also tired of the overfunded train wrecks. The way I see to stop them (or at least reduce the wreckage) is to talk about what didn’t work & why, so we can learn from the errors of the past.

    You are certainly welcome to present your opinions and wreckage pick-ups at the next event. We could use a good soliloquy on privileged and wealth in even being able to fail int he first place.