Project: Failure

Project - Porażka

“If I’ve learned something this year, it’s that you have to love the path that’s taken. Even if it is uncomfortable, uneven, muddy, it is ours. Even if sometimes you don’t want to go any further. But then you close your eyes, clench your fists and take the next step.”

This is how Hubert Fryc, a prose writer from Cracow, wrote on his Facebook as part of the year’s summary. I don’t know Hubert 😀 but I identify myself very much with this summary of the year… Yes! I could also sign up to that. The year 2018 and the beginning of 2019 was not easy for us as Project: People. Many things worked out great for us, but we also have a lot of difficult experiences behind us. And today we would like to share them with you. So what? Shall we begin?

To give you a context to everything that happened in 2018, first a short summary 🙂 If you’re looking for what didn’t work out in 2018 – scroll down to ‘Sprint falls’ >> But I encourage you to read the whole article to find out the reasons for it, as well as our ways to scale up sales and our services.

A Year of Sprint

2018 was a year of sprint for us in many ways… A sprint that we love so much when it comes to working with products, with customers, and as a working method, with regard to the company has as many pros as it does cons. Rapid development is also a space to omit important things.

Sprint in the development

The almost threefold increase in terms of revenues in 2018 speaks for itself.

As it is written in the job advertisements for startups, “a dynamically developing company is looking for…”. Evidently 2018 is the year in which we found a strong product/market fit, caught traction and grew at a very high rate. So what were we looking for? First of all, we searched:

  • Experienced people who could join our team. The people who joined us in 2018 are people with experience from other companies (e.g. CMO from a creative agency, a person with experience gathered in one of the largest Polish startups, etc.). We grew from 5 people with whom we ended 2017 to 10 closers in 2018. Only 1 person left us in a year – which I personally consider a success.
  • Ways to communicate knowledge about our processes and working methods to new people in a lean way. Due to the fact that we work quite specifically, the introduction of new people was associated with a large amount of work and time, but also the risk associated with new people being brought into projects with customers. We have found a way (not without failures during the process, but this is what follows), and soon we will share it in the form of a product 😀 CC: @Joanna Ostafin @Grzegorz Górzyński @Katarzyna Golonka 🙂
  • Ways to scale sales in connection with a larger number of leads, but also a longer sales process (larger customers = longer processes), but without changing our sales process, which is quite unique and works well for us. And without increasing the number of customers – we want to implement a limited number of projects per year – we have now decided that the number of projects will reach 40 customers. We are in the process of applying the method developed by us – we will share our experience soon 🙂
  • Ways to scale Project: People – in view of the fact that we want to remain a small boutique company (max 50 consultants worldwide), and our specialty is lean consulting, the scaling options may be quite scarce. Over the course of the year, the question of scaling was asked not only by investors who came to us, but also by befriended fellow strategists or people who support us. We also asked ourselves this question – not “If?” but “How?” 🙂 We have found and are currently testing two ways. Not only are we in the process of opening our headquarters in Paris, but we are also working on a product that will allow us to mass-produce lean consulting services. Stay tuned!
  • A new office :). The office we shared with CodeHeroes became too small for our 2 teams (Maja and Maciek’s team also grew rapidly) and the 1 conference room – although quite cool, turned out to be very busy with meetings with clients, workshops, etc. Our new office has more than 300m2, 3 conference rooms and plenty of space for work, leisure, etc.

Sprint in a settlement model

About 50% of our customers in 2018 settled and worked with us in a sprint model. Fast, dynamic work and quickly visible, effective results translated into an increase in the number of customers (through both recommendations and case studies in the form of articles and presentations at conferences), but also into faster delivery of value to customers, and thus an increase in their value. The average customer value increased 2.5 times year on year. And the largest customer in 2018 is as much as 70% of revenues from 2017.

Sprint and Marathon

2018 also saw a change in the definition of what we did, our business profile and the customer. From the very beginning, when designing Project: People, @Joanna and I had a strong vision of the direction we would like our team – a strategic lean agency – to take. At the same time, building such a company is expensive and time-consuming, and we did not want to use any forms of external financing. That is why we allowed ourselves to realize the vision in 5 years.

Our bootstrapping assumed that our business profile would change: in order to be able to self-finance ourselves, we started as a very executive company – carrying out from business cards to websites. We directed our services to small and medium companies, startups at the beginning of their career path.

During the concluding workshops in 2017 we realized quite strongly that this is a breakthrough moment and we are more of a consulting agency with marketing and UX orientation, which allows us to build good products and businesses, and to promote them. We have determined a very precise customer persona.

Closing 2018, none of us had any doubts that lean consulting was our specialty. We are in the middle of this road (2.5 years behind us) and we close 2018 with 40% of executive projects and 60% of strategic projects. Among the top 10 of our customers, 80% is within our persona. A plan for this year? Somebody’s gonna guess? 🙂

Sprint falls

The end of the year and the beginning of 2019 were very intensive for us. Closing projects, a large internal training project, a lot of changes in the team, new people appeared, etc. At the end of the year there was a reflection – is it worthwhile to grow so fast? Is rapid growth all good things? Not necessarily!

<This is the part for all those who want to know what didn’t work out for us. :)>

Failure in cooperation with customers

It is inevitable (unfortunately!) that if the company develops so quickly, something in cooperation with customers will not work out. Someday it has to happen. For quite a long time we managed to avoid such situations – by placing strong emphasis on communication with customers, mutual respect and tailoring solutions to customer needs – which allowed us to solve all potentially conflicting situations in a WIN-WIN manner. In 2017, 1 project ended with a breakup with a client without completing the project. In 2018 such a situation happened twice 🙁 Analyzing the situations that made us think, we observed that:

  • Both cases refer to a client by recommendation.
  • Both cases refer to clients expecting executive services.
  • Both cases refer to clients not within our current persona.
  • Both cases refer to non-lean clients.
  • In both cases, we have neglected to communicate with the customer.
  • In both cases the sales process was very fast – we didn’t make sure the customer understood exactly what he was buying and how we worked.
  • In both cases, the client collaborated with persons for whom it was the first project in Project: People.

We have learned good lessons from both situations:

  • We do not increase the number of customers, we want to devote time and attention to them, take care of communication. Currently we are trying to have 1 person on a project with 1, max 2 customers.
  • We put a strong emphasis on internal education, so that everyone in the team would be well prepared to work with customers both in terms of methodologies, tools and work methods, theory, but also in terms of our internal good practices and processes, as well as project experiences.
  • We decided to slow down a bit and pay a lot of attention to the arrangement of internal processes.
  • We put a lot of emphasis on fine-tuning the sales process. What does that mean? For example, we have refined the offers that the client receives so that they are clear, legible and clearly describe how we work, and also specify what will be the result of the work for him. In addition, in the sales process we educate intensely about our processes and work methods, we also make sure that the customer really wants to work lean 🙂

Misguided recruitments…

…or actually just one :). The beginning of 2019 is for us a difficult parting with one of the people who cooperated with us. I don’t know what disappointed us more: our failed intuition or this misguided cooperation. Anyway, I guess it wasn’t an easy process for any party. Those of you who watch Project: People know that we recruit strongly on the basis of values. In the case of this recruitment on our side and on the side of this person there were doubts as to the suitability of the team and its value already during the talks, but we were enchanted by the vision of the experience of this person, how they can support our development to be even faster (oh wait! did we need it?). Unfortunately, the reality turned out to be brutal, neither we were able to meet the expectations of this person, nor did the cooperation with this person meet our expectations.

Lessons? Very painful…

  • Matching an organisation’s culture and values is more important than competence.
  • A personality type that is extremely different from the previous types in a team – it may not work.
  • In our case, it is crucial to hire people who are focused on providing value.
  • People with strong corporate background already have such established mechanisms that it is difficult for them to get out of these patterns of thinking despite good intentions.

Team’s weariness

The end of the year was an intensive sprint, the whole year was a sprint. We ended the year with a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, with an ambitious plan for the next year. But ghastly tired. That’s why 2019 is the year of:

  • marathon instead of sprint 🙂 in terms of internal operation,
  • slowing down the pace – a little bit of ordering Project: People into processes – where it makes sense and value,
  • investment in the team to make it even more aware of itself, its competencies and be able to work even more effectively.

After all, lean is based on continuous improvement 🙂 And this continuous improvement will be the leitmotif for this year’s Project: People. We are not afraid of mistakes, we are not afraid of failures – they are natural and give us unforgettable lessons and move us forward.

And what lessons did you learn from your failures in 2018?

Post scriptum

I started 2019 with a holiday – on the Canaries with my family, I summed up the passing time, which also abounded in changes in my private life. During its course I started to be congratulated on LinkedIn and Facebook 🙂 on the occasion of the 3rd anniversary of Project: People.

I remembered how 3 years ago – also on the Canaries we designed our vision together with @Joanna Ostafin. Naturally, we have come full circle (Joanna was on holiday on the Canaries in November :D).

Exactly 3 years ago a concept was created, which now has a very measurable dimension, which has transformed into a project of my life – and Asia’s probably too 🙂 (Asia, can you take up with me this long?).

We still have a lot of work ahead of us, probably we will undergo many more failures along the way, but also many successes we have already achieved and we still have ahead :). I feel (we feel?:) ) pride and joy that in such a short time (2.5 years of real activity) we managed to build such a team, such a company and such a brand 😀

I love the path we’ve taken, but sometimes it’s not easy. Although sometimes you clench your fists and take the next step 🙂 What about you? What is your life project?

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Beata Mosór-Szyszka
Beata is a strategist, marketer and lean consultant with over 14 years of experience in the international market.

She helps companies create and/or optimize their business model, and translate it into effective strategies, tactics and specific actions. She is the author of Lean Marketing Sprint, a method for creating marketing campaigns, and Values Poker, a tool for working with values.

As a speaker Beata performs at Polish and international conferences (e.g. Lean Startup Days Paris, VC night by Viva Technology, Open Living Lab).

Beata also has experience in organizing and designing acceleration programs such as Google LaunchPad Warsaw & WARP by Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile & Cisco.

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