Business Wake mourns passed startups


Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a celebration this time of year recognizing those who are no longer with us. In Colorado Springs, departed people are not the only ones celebrated on this holiday.

On Nov. 1, Epicentral Coworking and Peak Startup hosted the third annual Business Wake to mourn the loss (and celebrate the life) of failed businesses and startups in Colorado Springs.

“It’s somber when you walk in,” said Michelle Parvinrouh, executive director for Peak Startup. “But by the time you leave there’s a lot of celebration.”

While the Business Wake is a place to celebrate past startups and ideas, it can also be a challenge to look back at failures, said Parvinrouh.

“[We] provide an atmosphere where it’s safe and supportive and have other entrepreneurs in the room that can learn from these lessons,” she said.

This year, founders from six failed startups shared their experiences at the wake.

“When you see other people have tried and failed, and see they’re doing better … it helps make it less scary,” Parvinrouh said. “You have to have the mindset that failure is OK.”

Fail to succeed

Jessica Valvo, one of this year’s speakers and a UCCS student, knows firsthand that failure can sometimes be a natural part of success.

Avium, a nonprofit startup she co-founded with other college students through the QUAD Innovation Partnership — a joint initiative between Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, UCCS and the Air Force Academy that supports graduating innovators — ceased operations at the end of the summer. When the startup team realized their first iteration wasn’t working, they tried to switch concepts midstream. Valvo was at the event to mourn both concepts.

Avium first started as a mobile grocery store to provide healthy groceries for Colorado Springs residents located in food deserts — high-poverty areas with limited access to fresh fruit, vegetables or healthful whole foods. Valvo and her team sought to fill what they saw as a transportation issue. But she later learned that transportation wasn’t the problem; it was factors such as finances or lack of a working knowledge of the kitchen.

“We switched our model from a mobile [grocery store] to an education program,” Valvo said. “We didn’t want to bring food to the neighborhood when they didn’t know how to cook it.”

Valvo began hosting free mobile educational cooking events. She said she eventually wants to turn the nonprofit into a healthy food truck, with proceeds going toward donating and delivering healthy food to low-income families, but her concept isn’t yet sustainable.

“Would people buy that food? Would there be a demand for the food we would be selling?” Valvo said. “There’s a lot of research before I would ever consider moving forward.

“I would want to bring solid data to investors and I would want to know I was creating a product or service that was needed in the community, because the whole goal was to help the disadvantaged, but you can’t do that if you don’t have the income to sustain it in the first place.”

Donors from the community contributed $500 to the business, but Valvo said it would have cost more than $100,000 just to open a fully operational mobile grocery store.

To continue her business, Valvo said she wants to be sure the model can last.

“Can your business grow? Is it working with your market? If all of those answers are not ‘yes,’ you have to stop moving forward,” she said.

Valvo, who is also the program assistant for Peak Startup, shared her experience with guests at the Business Wake, and said she wants to help take away the negative connotations of failure.

“Just because it failed doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful in other ways,” Valvo said. “We should celebrate that. We should celebrate failure and moving forward and knowing when to stop.”

Valvo said she’s learned to move on.

“Don’t fall in love with your idea,” she said. “You might fail a million times but all you need is one good idea for things to completely change. So keep looking for that one good idea — don’t stay focused on the past.”

Instead of putting her startup in the grave, Valvo said she is researching how to make the model operational and that it will be at least six months before she will start the business again.

Don’t stop now

Whether putting the brakes on a startup to figure everything out or moving on to other ventures, a lot can be learned from failure.

One of the Business Wake’s speakers from last year’s startup event is Noel Boyce, a registered nurse who founded Urban Mobile Health to bring medical care to people’s homes.

Sharing what happened to his startup publicly was beneficial, Boyce said.

“Giving a platform to address the fact that this business was awesome, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason, … doing it in a public manner is empowering, it gives you a foot to move forward with.”

Boyce said he considers his startup to be an “epic failure” for several reasons.

“I went at it alone, I tried to bootstrap it and fund it from my own pocket,” he said. “I didn’t have an advisory board. I didn’t have anyone else on the team except for me. That was one of my biggest pitfalls was not putting together a team.”

Though his startup was operating from 2012 to 2014, Boyce also ran into issues when the Affordable Care Act was implemented. People who were OK with paying for health care out of pocket became afraid of being penalized, he said.

“I knew I was kind of going against a government mandate as a startup entrepreneur. … I didn’t realize how challenging it was going to be,” Boyce said.

He added that it is important to embrace failure as much as growth.

“If you deal with the fact that you can fail, I think that ends up being a lot more stabilizing in the long run,” Boyce said. “There are different levels of acceptance for that failure. … Accept the idea of failure sooner. It likely will build more success in the future.”