The Other “F” Word

By Betsy Shaver, VP of Operations

Anybody who knows me probably has a very specific idea about what the subject matter of this post will be. Surprise! I actually do know other “F” words. The one I am talking about in this context is failure.

There are, of course, endless platitudes about failure. “If at first you don’t succeed…” “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up again” “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and other such tiresome lines. But … do we really talk about failure enough? In a meaningful way? No. The reason I know this to be true, is that we all have an “auto-off” that deploys to protect us and the ego when we fail. I’m sure there’s a boring academic explanation for why this happens, but if you want to know what I think we can do about it, read on.

Let’s Go There

Mainstream periodicals are quick to feature the newest entrepreneur who has improved/disrupted/“whatever”-ed the industry. But no one wants to talk about the proportional hundreds (thousands?) of others who’ve failed in relation to that one. So: Let’s talk about our failures. I have one of my own to tell you.

My Story of Failure

I live in Richmond. In late 2013, I saw an opportunity to affect change locally. Frustrated with corporate America and feeling hamstrung by my company’s pre-internet business model, I decided it was time to make a change.

At that time, Richmond had -and still has- a burgeoning restaurant scene. Every time you saw a local blog or magazine or talked to your hipster friend (we all have one), there was a new one. It was with this friend (she knows who she is) that I ordered some fancy, overpriced drink that required something that came in a glass bottle. I don’t even remember what it was. Although I do remember I enjoyed it in spite of myself, and when I asked the server if the restaurant recycled, she leaned in close and confessed to us, “You know, we don’t as a restaurant, but the guys and I take turns taking the stuff home with us and just putting it in our bins.”

I couldn’t believe it. The city happily furnished me with a tote it collected twice a month, and charged me something ridiculous like $0.37 a month do do it. However, the city didn’t collect recycling from businesses because (a) it didn’t have the bandwidth or the budget and (b) many of these restaurants were in tight areas of the city where gigundo, unwieldy trucks didn’t really fit.

I began planning. How could I collect recyclables? How could I furnish bins? What would I charge for them? What would the routes and collection intervals look like? How could I price it so that I could still make it attractive to businesses but have a plan to be solvent (and preferably profitable) ASAP?

Over most of the next year, I placed pieces of the puzzle as they were complete. In my journal I had drawn an outline of a jigsaw puzzle on the inside cover. As things moved off my to-do list – business lawyer, vendor agreement, branding, business cards, figuring what the hell to do with all this crap once I collected it, etc. – I wrote each one into one of the puzzle pieces. (Yes, I know that’s not linear. I don’t think that way so keep your logic to yourself.)

I had verified multiple times with multiple people that the city did not, and would not, service restaurants; or any other business for that matter. “It would be too costly and it was the responsibility of the business,” was the refrain I got from city employees. I had frantically made this call again immediately after learning the city had been awarded a $500,000 grant from an environmental foundation to broaden recycling in medium-sized cities. I got the same answer – this changed nothing. The city could not, and would not, service businesses – as I had been told several times before. But by now you probably know where this is going, don’t you?

Roughly 3 weeks prior to launch, everything was on track. I had a truck lined up to buy that had a mechanical tipping-arm and several potential customers; although I wanted to wait until I had everything completely done on my end before executing vendor agreements my lawyer had drawn up. I would soon be taking delivery of the “carts,” as they’re called in the industry. Twenty-four of them in 95-gallon capacity. Each one had cost me about $85. They were going to take up a lot of room, and so by taking “just in time” delivery on them, I could avoid having to pay for a place to store them before they were deployed to their sites. They were coming in about two weeks.

A good friend worked in food & beverage, and she had been helping me make local connections and get meetings with managers and owners. About this time, she texted me and said, “Hey, what’s up with all the [recycling] cans in the alley behind Cary?” I called her immediately, and she said she had seen a spate of green recycling carts on a stretch of alley about a mile long. I felt physically ill. I grabbed my keys and drove down there to see it for myself.

Indeed, just as I had been delivered a new 95-gallon cart by the city contractor a couple months ago, so apparently had every business up and down a mile long stretch of my critical market. This area had many of the city’s restaurants and the problematic narrow alleyways.

I called the city, again. I explained why I was so panicky about why there were recycling carts all over the damn place. (“Isn’t recycling a good thing?”) All the city employee was able to offer me was “Well, you know, in the alleyways, you can’t always tell from the back of a building what’s a business and what’s a residence.”

And that was it. That was the stake in the heart of my business model. I was crushed. There was literally NO WAY I could now convince businesses to pay me money to collect their recycling when the city was going to do it for “free” because you can’t tell who’s a business and who’s not from the alleyway. Worse yet, I still had $2200 worth of carts that were now completely f*cking useless coming via freight carrier in two weeks.

I couldn’t bring myself to call and beg the company to cancel my order (Google “Shepherd+entrepreneurship+failure” for why). I already knew I wasn’t going to recoup my money. I had bought ones that were the ‘outlet’ models and when I signed off on the customization proof to brand them, I acknowledged that these were outlet pieces and were therefore non-returnable. (Didn’t know there were such things as ‘outlet’ garbage cans, did you?)

One of the clients I had lined up was a company in an industrial office park in the neighboring county. The office manager was a big proponent of recycling and had the clout to convince the home office this was a worthwhile expenditure. She had found me via Google search and made an inquiry and would probably be my first client. I visited her in person to tell her what had happened, because I felt I owed her at least that. Because I was small-scale, the best price I could offer her was still a lot higher than what the big, established company could do. And since it was an office park, the fact that I was going to have a small truck to tip the carts wasn’t a competitive advantage.

I took delivery on my useless 95-gallon carts. My neighbor, Doug, saw them getting delivered and came out and helped me bring them into the backyard. He had many questions about my new venture, which I pretended was still viable. For the next 15 months, they sat in stacks of four in my backyard. I don’t even remember now how many there were. Twenty-four? Thirty-two? Some multiple of four, and way too many. I vacillated between biding my time for the city to discover it didn’t have the money to sustain this endeavor and needed an additional contractor; to just leaving them on the curbs in front of my neighbors’ houses in the dead of night. Of course, I would have to obscure the logo somehow so people didn’t ask me about it. And Doug would still know where they came from and would probably tell people.

Eventually, I had enough time and distance from the wound to realize I needed to do something productive with these carts other than let them rot in the backyard. They were high-density polyethylene, so they weren’t going to rot anyway. My probable first client had said that they didn’t want me to collect aluminum cans because Habitat for Humanity collected the aluminum as raw materials from which they’d build houses. I found the contact info for my local Habitat chapter and sent an email and pictures saying “I have these. I can’t use them. I will donate them to you if you can come get them this week.” Not one to waste a gift, the Director of the local chapter responded almost immediately and said “We can have someone take half of them tomorrow. We’ll have to wait until next week to get the other half.” I suppose he thought maybe I’d later change my mind, because “next week” became only three days later.

Either way, I was now rid of the reminder that my venture had failed; they were being put to good use; and the city was reducing its waste by at least half by “not collecting” recycling from businesses. As far as investments go, I’d come out almost unscathed. But it still felt terrible. And until now, only 2 people in the world have heard the story as I’ve just told it to you. Because it’s not an easy thing to talk about. But it’s part of the process.

Got a failed venture story you want to get off your chest? Feel free to leave it below.