The major mess-ups that made my edtech business thrive

By Aldo de Pape, CEO and Founder of TeachPitch, in association with the WISE Accelerator

‘Self-awareness Is Key to Success’ – it is an ancient wisdom that we just cannot argue with.  

In building TeachPitch I have dealt with many ups and downs that have made the company what it is today. On my path as a founder I have made many personal errors and wrong decisions that I would love to share with you. At worst, I hope they will make you laugh to know that a naive, hyperactive person like myself is out there. At best I hope that these 4 major mess-ups will give you some guidance in your own (entrepreneurial) journey.

1. I was attracted by the shiny things

We have all heard about the start-up company that raised $200m in one day, whose founders became world famous overnight (meanwhile also won the Noble Prize for Entrepreneurship) and whose product saved the lives of billions of people on the planet. Right?  

I sure did. And when I started TeachPitch I was very much attracted to the idea of being such a founder myself. You read about it in the newspaper, hear about it on the radio and literally cannot browse anywhere on the Web without being informed about the success of such a thriving young company. The stories are everywhere.

So how hard could it be to start one yourself? Being almost 4 years in now, I can tell you it is not a walk in the park. Don’t get me wrong I have enjoyed every minute of the journey but ‘easy’ is not the word that comes to mind in describing my path until today. I am not going to bore you with all things that I have found difficult but the bottom-line is that you (and only you) are responsible for literally everything that happens in your company.  

From filling out the endless quarterly tax reports to cleaning out the stinky office fridge. From trying to stay polite when declining that annoying Sales Ad Rep for the 120th time to being screamed ‘no’ to by a customer (or investor) you really thought you were going to close. It is all part of the game.

Even though I would not have wanted to miss out on a single moment of any of this, I feel very far from the shiny things that attracted me to start my company in the first place. I am very grateful for where I am today but it is a very different place than I initially thought it would look like.

2.  I felt sorry for myself

I am just going to say it; sometimes I am a spoiled, self-entitled little brat. I know this. There is no need to sugar-coat it. I could get really annoyed with the world and the people in it and started blaming any person for any wrong decision that I had made – personally as well as professionally.

I am not proud of it but it could happen, especially on days that everything went wrong. You did not want to talk to me on such a day because my (over-caffeinated) self would get foul. Consider yourself warned.  

When I started TeachPitch I went through some of those black days calling out the people close to me. ‘Easy for you to say with your boring corporate job…’ or a sincerely sarcastic ‘Who will play you in the movie…?’ were often slung at the heads of loved ones.

Looking back at this, I realise that this came from the seriously false self-predicament of feeling sorry for myself. If things were not going my way immediately I spent my time crying myself to sleep instead of dealing with the situation and considering alternative options. Not a good place to be. Trust me. And the worst of all is, the feeling of self-pity does not go away – there will always be a next set-back and the toxicity to fall back into.

But at a certain point self-awareness struck and the realisation that this state of mind was not helping anyone.  

Today I know that I am 100% responsible for my actions and that whatever output comes my way, it is my task to clean it up. There will always be good days and bad days but through TeachPitch I know how I will respond to them. 

If I tend to become that spoiled, little brat again, I stop doing what I am doing, take a break and try to look at the big picture; TeachPitch is growing and that is all that matters. 

3. I wanted to be liked

We all want to be loved. That is just the way we are wired. Those people who claim that ‘they could not care less what others think of them’ are lying through their teeth. Everyone likes a friendly smile, a sincere compliment or even an overwhelming applause and we each have our own way of claiming it among our peers.  

Likeability gives us energy and many of us see it as a confirmation that what we are doing is right. I am no exception to this. I love being invited to the party or if people laugh at my hilarious jokes. But being liked really has zero significance if you are running a company. Steering a business is not about being popular. Not at all.  

As a CEO you need to make sure that you keep the organisation alive so your employees (and their families) can continue to live their lives. Your business needs to grow, you need to make a profit and above all – you need to protect the vision & mission of the company. And if this requires making a hard and unpopular decisions then so be it.

For too long I was avoiding taking such a decision that was vital for the future of TeachPitch because I wanted to be liked. In order to survive we needed to restructure our company and this meant that some people needed to be let go. I did not enjoy doing this at all but there was no other way of growing the organisation in the right way. It was very difficult to do and I felt like I let a lot of people down. But it was for the best.

How I knew it was the right decision? The moment it was done, things rolled on way better than before. Making the call is hard and can be counter-intuitive but the wellbeing of the company and your employees should go above all – at all times.  

4. I was too cautious in making a decision

When you start a business you want to be sure you are doing the right thing. You don’t have a lot of money and only a small window of time to make a decision so if you are going to make one, you better make it count. This is a very scary notion.  

The problem here is that you don’t know if what you are deciding is going to stick. We are no fortune tellers (at least I am not) so you end up taking no decision instead of running the risk you are unlocking the door to eternal catastrophe. But making no decision sadly is not going to work either.

If you want your business to grow you are going to have to take a next step. Learn how to take those decisions. There really is no point in doing nothing. The trick is to break it down.

I have learnt that it is better to make many small decisions or ‘babysteps’ that all have the potential to lead to the same positive result rather than making a 1 big one. Many of those little steps come at no cost and little to no risk.

If one little thing sticks, then perhaps the next one as well and the next one… and the next one? If it doesn’t work out then you still have option to try something else. It might be true that you have incurred a small loss but it will never be as big as the huge mistake that made it all disappear. 

Another thing I’d say is that I have learned how to cope with the disappointment in making the wrong decision. It is never a good feeling but you need to how to forgive yourself and move on to the next phase. These are just four of the many mess-ups I have made in my successful entrepreneurial journey until today. I have many (many) more and cannot wait to share them with you.  

Aldo de Pape is CEO and Founder of TeachPitch, a London-based EdTech company founded in 2014.  In 2016 Aldo wrote the blog-post ‘The 4 Big Fails That Made My Business Succeed’ in which he described his experiences being a start-up founder. This article is an informal sequel of that post in which he has attempted to be (even) more honest.  

The WISE Accelerator is designed to support the development of innovative education initiatives with high potential for scalability and positive impact.