Building a successful business from failure

We had vision. We met a clear customer need. Our technology came together to address it.


With great enthusiasm, we put our product Decision Navigator out for customer testing. Chevron had agreed to conduct a major beta test, applying the system to an important project and Paul at Chevron was committed to making it work. Everything was going our way.

They worked through their project, applying various modules of Decision Navigator to guide a strategic decision process: from simple things like issue raising to more complex social tools like strategy tables to analytic heavy lifting with tornado diagrams. Feedback was good. They liked out Decision Navigator’s ability to coordinate people across multiple geographies, document results, and keep the whole process moving forward. The technology was working, with a minimum of easily fixed bugs. It seemed like we had proof that our vision was a good one and we were on a good path.

Until the debrief with Paul after the project.

At first our excitement grew and Paul gave us systematic feedback on the system. He loved all the modules and gave us specific useful feedback for improving many. He described how well Decision Navigator worked overall, and identified many situations within Chevron where the system could be useful. Then towards the end of the meeting, we asked if Chevron would be interested in buying it.

He said “no”.

No hedging, no “if you could do..”, no way forward for us: just a direct and simple “no”.

We were devastated. “Could you explain?” we cautiously asked, “You just told us how great it was.”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “the software is great. The problem is that automates things that are too easy to do manually. For example, issue raising can be done simply via email. Your tool is nicer, but not worth paying for.”

Our first reaction, of course, was to fight and argue and deflect. Our vision was being destroyed and we did not want to let go of it. Fortunately, we knew Paul well and was patient with us.

Eventually we settled down and admitted failure. This was the moment of truth, the moment of personal courage: to set aside a vision one has worked for and believed in and admit failure. To submit to reality and ask critically: what does it take to build a successful business? From this new space of inquiry, we engaged Paul, “We are wondering where to go with this next to develop a business.”

His reply surprised us, “To build the business, you are going to have to demonstrate something we will pay for. Here is an idea: as you know, I am an expert in evaluation, and the evaluation module in Decision Navigator did not do much for me. But I’ve realized that coordinating evaluations across many opportunities across many people is really difficult to do manually. If you could make something that focused on the portfolio evaluation, that could be worthwhile.”

A new hope.

After much arguing internally, we took a tiny and almost insignificant part of our vision and put that at the core. Then we turned Decision Navigator inside out, cut 80% of its features, and created Portfolio Navigator.

Paul was eager to try it and quickly found an application within Chevron.

It was a success. And they bought it.

Then we build our business on it: Portfolio Navigator is our flagship product.

If you have the courage to move beyond just technology and customer needs to additionally think critically about the business and economic issues in building your product, then you can fail forward to success. I did, and so can you.

Failing forward is the key to innovation. What is your story? Please share in the comments section!