Lessons Learned From Ending Yet Another Project
Some people are good at starting projects, some are good at running them, some are good at growing them, and some are good at maintaining them.
Which one are you?
I’m very much a starter. I like to try new things and start new projects all the time. The problem with that is: I tend to have too many things going on at the same time.
Do you have a similar problem?
Tomorrow, I’ll be suspending activities on a project I was proud of: Viking Boutique. It was the world’s first and only story-driven store. It was a very entertaining store where potential customers reacted really well to my ads.
The problem was, no one bought the products. They only cared about the funny stories I was writing.
After reading The Dip, by Seth Godin, it was clear that Viking Boutique was in a dip.
During a few journaling sessions, I came up with different plans to get it out of the dip, but I never executed on them. I tried really hard, but I could not come up with a simple enough plan to execute with the resources I had available.
Maybe it was just a dumb excuse.
Anyhow, below is how I start, run, and (sadly) kill projects.
I’m hoping that will give you a good idea of a project’s cycle and how NOT to get too attached to a project you can’t easily dig out of a dip.
This is only from my experience having done many projects and had to kill them. These are lessons I learned that may or may not apply to everyone.
Starting a Project
I’m personally not a big fan of traditional business plans. It may be because I’m a starter and like to get my feet wet as soon as possible. That’s likely not the best way to go, but nonetheless, I know the steps below are important to kickstart a project successfully.
Step 1. Identify the skills required to run the project
I’m surprised most people don’t even think about the skills required to run a project. I’d argue this is one of the first steps to understanding if a project is feasible or not.
For Viking Boutique, I asked myself:
- What skills does it take to start and run an online store?
- What skills do I need to be a credible Viking?
I have a page full of skills required to make it a success. Not half of them I had to start with.
A few months before making the store live, I focused on slowly building up the skills I figured I’d be able to acquire fast enough.
The rest comes from Step 2 below.
Reflection: What skills does it take to run my project?
Step 2. Identify the resources you’ll have available for the project
Brainstorm a list of people you know who have some of the missing skills required to make the project a success. Or people you know can acquire the skills. List the skills next to each person.
Don’t limit yourself to people you think could accept. List EVERYONE you can think of, no matter how accessible they might be. You could be surprised how some people may say “yes” to you even though you think they would say “no”.
Follow the tips here to help you get a “yes”:
Reflection: Who can help you with this project?
Brainstorm a list of costs required to start and run your project. Also, brainstorm your sources of money. Don’t limit yourself to the money you currently have. Figure out if there are grants or loans you can apply to — whether reasonable or not.
When comes time to create your budget, decide which sources of funding are easier to get to have enough money to cover the costs of the project.
Remember this one thing: What’s the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?
What set of features constitutes a product you can actually sell and make money with, ideally without even spending money? Think outside the box. There are many options to kickstart projects without even spending a dime.
I started Viking Boutique without spending any money. Most projects I’ve started actually never cost me money until later in the cycle.
Reflection: How much is the project going to cost and where can you find the money? Can I do an MVP without spending any money?
Step 3. Identify a time and date where, if you haven’t reached a defined milestone, you’ll kill the project — no questions asked
That’s a hard one, but a very important one. It’s important because it gives you clarity on the expectations of the project and makes the decision of ending the project easier.
I put Viking Boutique online in February and decided that if by July, it couldn’t at least sustain itself with me spending only 10–15% of my time on it, I’d have to kill it.
I knew my milestone. In theory, it wasn’t even hard to reach. My ads worked great. They were performing way above industry average, yet no one bought. The entertainment I provided was great, but people didn’t visit for the products, so they never bought anything.
In retrospect, it’s not that surprising. I could pivot and focus more so on selling then entertaining. Surely I’d be more “successful”. But I’d hate doing it. Ultimately, I didn’t want to spend 10–15% working on a project I wouldn’t be proud of and love doing.
Because I didn’t reach my milestone in time, I’m killing the project so I can better focus on other projects that are reaching their targets.
I learned so much and have no regret. The skills I learned are certainly going to be useful for other projects.
Reflection: What’s a reasonable timeframe where I can sustain the project long enough to be “successful”?
Running a project
This is what I consider a weakness of mine and something I’m constantly working on. I always try to surround myself with people who either can help me run a project or are mostly independent. Regardless, doing the three things below will help you run the project successfully and hopefully not lead you to end it:
1. Set goals and milestones frequently
I always set weekly and monthly goals and milestones. When you set goals, be specific, identify key metrics, define feasibility & relevance, and set a deadline. In short, always create SMART goals.
If you’re not familiar with SMART, you need to start reading on it now. A goal that’s not SMART is useless and counter-productive.
Reflection: Are the goals I’m setting for this week or month SMART?
2. Have a stellar communication
Projects live and die by how effectively we communicate with everyone involved. I’m guilty of poor communication more frequently than I’d care to admit, and is likely the main cause for failure on most of my projects.
As a project manager, communicate your intentions and results.
It’s not always easy, especially when things are going south, but it’s important for the team to understand the current situation. If your collaborators trust you and believe in your/their project, they’ll do everything in their power to make it successful. I’ve seen this happen time and again.
Reflection: Is everyone involved aware of what’s going on with the project?
3. Reflect daily, weekly and monthly
At the end of every week, I reflect back on: what was done, what went right, what went wrong, how can I do better next week?
It is the basis of my Accountability for Accountable People Program.
Reflection is so important yet I’ve rarely seen it being done strictly. In the thick of the action, we forget to look back at the results, foregoing very important lessons that can be learned.
Reflection: What were the results and what can we learn from them?
Killing a project
That’s the part we never want to reach, yet sometimes, it’s the best thing we can do. Sadly, by being a starter, I’ve ended projects many more times than I’d wish. Most of the times, I have only myself to blame.
All projects are different, but most would benefit from following the steps below:
Step 1. Create a shutdown plan
Identify everything that needs to be shut down: websites, social media, apps, physical location, etc. Figure out in which order things should be shut down, and specify the best time and date to do it.
If other people are involved in the project, split the tasks.
Make the plan action-based. Follow the SMART principles from goal-setting.
Reflection: What needs to be shut down and what do I need to do to shut them down?
Step 2. Notify your customers in advance and give them a way to retrieve their data
If your project has customers, the least you can do for them is let them know in advance of your plans to shut down. Depending on the nature of the project, the number of customers and how important your project is for your customers, you’ll need a different timeframe. The longer the better for them.
During that shutdown period, give your customers a way to retrieve what’s rightfully theirs, like their personal data. Ideally, in a format they can easily use in another competing product or on their own.
For a multiplayer online game I used to work on, we gave our players three months notice. We feared the worst from our players, but the notice was well received. We thought people would rage, but instead, we got empathy from them. We made sure their last three months would be worth it and they’d remember how good we were to them if ever they were interested in another product from us.
Reflection: How long of a notice should I give to my customers and how can I give them back what’s rightfully theirs?
Step 3. Execute the shutdown plan
Track the action steps you’re taking towards your plan. Make sure to note what time and date you’re doing each. It’s always good practice to know what was done when.
Make sure everyone involved knows at which step of the process you’re at. That includes your customers and your collaborators.
If you realize you missed some steps in your planning, add them to your plan.
Reflection: Am I executing the plan as I communicated it with my customers and collaborators?
It may sound counter-intuitive to plan for a termination of a project before it’s even started, but it’s important because it gives you clarity on the expectations of the project and makes the decision of ending the project easier.
If you end up not doing the effort to reach your milestones, take it as a proof that you weren’t as committed as you thought you would be and realize what your real priorities are.
The idea is to avoid killing it at all costs by being aware of the reality of what the project truly entails, and if you can’t reach the required milestones, it can be damaging to keep the project active.
Terminating a project you really care/d about is never easy, but sometimes you have to do what it takes to avoid being in a cul-de-sac.
So, apply the principles here, and those from your own learning, do your best, and one day, you’ll have a project so good you won’t have to ever end.
“I have not failed, I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” — Thomas A. Edison
You can do this!
Thanks for reading, sharing and following! :)
Summary of Reflections
- What skills does it take to run my project?
- Who can help you with this project?
- How much is the project going to cost and where can you find the money? Can I do an MVP without spending any money?
- What’s a reasonable timeframe where I can sustain the project long enough to be “successful”?
- Are the goals I’m setting for this week or month SMART?
- Is everyone involved aware of what’s going on with the project?
- What were the results and what can we learn from them?
- What needs to be shut down and what do I need to do to shut them down?
- How long of a notice should I give to my customers and how can I give them back what’s rightfully theirs?
- Am I executing the plan as I communicated it with my customers and collaborators?
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First published here: https://medium.com/swlh/thinking-of-ending-a-project-you-started-23b003b4ee3d