How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life

“Success is moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm”

— Winston Churchill

prototype entrepreneurship woodworking
Chair Prototype in Progress

Have you ever heard the business maxim “fail fast, fail cheap”?  The reason to fail fast and cheap is to quickly find out what doesn’t work and accelerate your journey to success while doing it at the lowest cost possible.  One of the ways we do that in woodworking is by prototyping.  Premium hardwoods are expensive.  You don’t want to build the first in a set of dining room chairs, for example, and find out your measurements are off or the design isn’t quite right.  All the more reason to do some prototyping first.  This maxim of fail fast and fail cheap applies in woodworking, entrepreneurship as well as life, which we’ll delve into below.

Fail Fast in Woodworking

One of my first projects for Traughber Design was to design and build a cat bed for our favorite pet, Ralph the Woodworking Cat (see post about the life of Ralph here).  The pet industry in the United States is a multi-billion dollar per year industry and given how much people love their pets, I figured a hand-made pet bed in black walnut would be a sure fire seller.  I was actually worried there would be so many orders once the piece was posted on the Internet that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with production.  Silly me.  Guess how many orders we received for that piece?  Zero!  That was a valuable lesson in failing fast for a couple of reasons.  One is that I should have prototyped the design in pine first before going final with black walnut.  Pine is about a fourth the cost of black walnut.  I ended up making two of these beds out of black walnut and could have made just one.  But the other lesson we learned was to finish the piece quickly and get it on the website to get user feedback.  That part I think we did well.  In this case, we learned there was not a market for this type of work and quickly moved on to more lucrative projects.  Lessons learned:  make it fast using a prototype and solicit feedback early from the market.

Fail Fast in Entrepreneurship

I came up with an idea a few years ago for a consumer product that had wide application.  Anyone could use it.  I cobbled together some parts from around the house and started testing it.  Given the nature of the product, I could test it once every 24 hours.  I’d test it, modify it, test it, modify it, etc.  I was failing fast (and cheap) because I could run through the entire cycle in a day.  The grand plan was to market it via a company called Quirky, which solicits products like this then does all the marketing for the entrepreneur.  Unfortunately, Quirky went bankrupt!  The product is currently  on the shelf due to time constraints with our other projects, but we learned a lot in the process of testing and did not have to invest a lot of resources.  We may resurrect the product in the future and try to market it ourselves.  Lessons learned:  do rapid prototyping with inexpensive components.

Fail Fast in Life

At one point in my life I accepted what was considered a promotion, even though I was very reluctant because of the nature of the work.  I did the job for a few months and realized I didn’t want to do that type of work for the next unknown number of years and was not following my calling.  I developed a transition plan, then discussed it with my boss who was very amenable to the change when I explained how the switch back to my old job would benefit the organization.  I had to put aside my pride, because the change might have been perceived by some to be a demotion, but that was definitely the wrong job for me.  By pulling the plug after only a few months, I was failing fast which is a good thing.  Lesson learned:  don’t wait to pull the plug if you know your job is not a good fit.  Move on.

Fail Cheap in Woodworking

I’m currently working on a commission for four dining room chairs in cherry and decided to build a prototype in pine for two reasons.  One reason was to test the form, fit and function with the client, but the other reason relates more to failing cheap.  This reason was to go through the build process and identify any manufacturing problems.  I had modified the joinery plan from using biscuits to mortise & tenon joinery since that’s one of Traughber Design’s hallmarks and we have a Festool Domino (see blog post #2 on tools).  The Domino cuts joints amazingly precise and quickly.  Sure enough we ran into a problem in attaching the leg braces underneath the seat (see picture at top of this post) and were able to resolve it by changing where the joints were placed.  We would not have uncovered that issue until we were cutting into very expensive cherry if we had not prototyped.  As it was, we were using very inexpensive scrap pine 2 x 4s which were laying around the wood shop.  Lesson learned:  fail cheap by building inexpensive prototypes.

Fail Cheap in Entrepreneurship

We’re very happy with our current Traughber Design website, but started out with another provider when we first launched on the Internet.  The other website was free to set up, and there was a nominal cost to post each of our woodworking pieces online.  Sales, however, were disappointing and the more we worked with that site’s community, the more we realized it really wasn’t a good fit for a custom woodworking business.  Fortunately, we were only out a few bucks and we failed cheap.  In addition, we established a beachhead on the Internet for very little cost and learned a lot.  We decided to create a website with more functionality like this one that can grow with the business.  WordPress is a very widely used open-source software with thousands of plugins available.  Our web host, SiteGround, has industry-leading uptime rates, and first-rate tech support (click here if you are looking for a web host)  Lesson learned:  try to do many low-cost experiments to see what works well then pick the winners.

Fail Cheap in Life

One of my summer jobs during college was at a gas station in our home town.  The manager was great and my co-workers were great, too.  The pay was terrible, though.  I learned a lot about the value of time during that job.  For example, the previous summers I had painted houses which was pretty lucrative for a teenager.  Unfortunately, our crew had to disband which is why I got the gas station gig.  I didn’t make much that summer at the gas station, but I paid relatively little to “fail cheap” by not earning what I could have earned painting.  In the grand scheme of things, “wasting” 3 months that summer wasn’t a deal breaker, and I learned a key lesson in valuing my time.  Lesson learned:  take risks in life, just not expensive ones.

You know how you always see or hear that saying “failure is not an option”.  Maybe it should be “failure is mandatory.”  If you’re not failing, it doesn’t seem to me you are trying anything worthwhile.

4 thoughts on “How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life”

  1. This is such a great post! You shared so many good insights. I love what you said about failure being mandatory. What great advice to remember.

  2. What did you do with the two cat beds you made?
    I am seeing that time and time management are more important than I realized, what are some ways I can manage my time both at work and at how?

    1. Lori, they are for sale now that Ralph the Woodworking Cat has moved on to the wood shop in the sky.

      You ask a great question about balance. I shared some tips from my own experimentation in the post about making and managing. Another tip that I didn’t write about in the blog post is that if a meeting is scheduled for an hour and it’s still going after an hour, then leave the meeting. Ending a meeting seems to be a skill in demand. Every minute you spend in a meeting that goes long is another minute you can’t spend on your to-do list.

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