Learning from Pets.com Failure

Bust: a startup that flames out, despite a strong and promising start. 

In the year 2000, the Super Bowl featured a commercial that starred a sock puppet. That puppet was the mascot for Pets.com, the poster child of Dot Com busts. Pets.com did everything right – if you evaluated them by traditional business methodologies. They did vast amounts of market research, formed a large sophisticated supply chain, had a nice looking organizational chart, and had a killer marketing campaign. A lot of people knew of Pets.com after that Super Bowl ad. There was great “market penetration.” So what was the problem? Amazon has proven that people will buy anything online, including pet supplies, so that isn’t it. The problem was that they did everything right, for a non-internet world. Emerging internet technology introduced so much uncertainty into our cultural realities that no amount of market research was going to validate their idea without them actually trying it first.



The levels of uncertainty haven’t decreased. Technology continues to rattle our cultural landscape and shows no signs of slowing. Yet, since Pets.com there have been a slew of success stories of internet startups. So what’s changed? Primarily, the business world has learned to accept cultural uncertainty as a given factor, and have developed new models of business to account for it. These practices have names like “lean” and “agile” but at their heart they are about managing risk in the face of extreme uncertainty. This is how they work: Instead of undertaking a massive project, they find a way a test one objective at a time using as little resources as possible with the goal of validating their idea quickly and scientifically. If their objective isn’t met, they take what they’ve learned and try something different. When people say “you need to fail in order to succeed,” what they really mean is that you need to learn from your failures. 

Now imagine a church trying this approach using a classic example. Trinity Church wants to create a new, contemporary worship service. Their main objective is to get seekers involved at the church, but in order to do so they need to prove A) That the time and place that works for seekers and B) That the style of worship works for seekers. Traditionally, you’d form a committee and spend a year prayerfully planning out your service so that you could present a polished product from day one. Ideally, you’d have surveyed a lot of seekers to understand their preferences. But what if, at the end of the year nobody attends your service or they attend but then don’t come back the next week? What if only current members attend the service? How do you find out what went wrong if no seekers show up. You’ve essentially wasted a year of your committees time and resources.

Using “Lean” practices you would figure out how test your two objectives as quickly and efficiently as possible. You’d be making a “minimum viable product” or MVP. What do you truly need to test them? Here’s an example: Ask your local coffee shop if you can rent out their space for an hour after they close on Sunday. Put a sign out front the says “Free Latte’s and Christian Music by Request”. Ask 10 of your congregants to commit to inviting a seeker to the event. See if people show up and what kind of music they request. If nobody comes, instead of wasting a year, you’ve wasted perhaps three hours of planning and a little cash. If people do show up, then your concept has been validated and you can double down for the next iteration, where you continue to test different ideas about your new ministry. If they show up and don’t care for the music but want to engage in discussion, maybe you should be creating a seeker friendly small group instead.

The problem with the Lean approach is that it is so radically different from how we do church. When executing a new ministry, Lean has no need for impressive buildings, large staffs, or expert committees. It has little use for the playbooks the church has used to do ministry for the last 100, or even the last 20 years. We like to talk, but Lean values behavior and learning way more than meetings, surveys, and even visioning. When Pets.com failed, the business world took note and adjusted accordingly. It’s time for the church to learn from their example. A failure to adapt will likely mean that our grand institutions too, will bust.


Share This