Fail Faire UK 2012


Fail Faire UK 2012 was a real celebration of failure as a mark of innovation and risk-taking in international development. We had great speakers with fun, fast, Ignite-style presentations of their professional failures. Audience participation was not only encouraged, it was mandatory!

We are all peers and none of us is perfect. We had much laughter as we navel-gazed at where we have all gone wrong in ICT and international development.

Yet don’t forget that we all LEARNED from failure. Failure is no reason to be ashamed. There are many types of failure, with only the failure to learn being worthy of scorn.

Fail Faire UK 2012 happened on July 18th at the GSMA Head Office. Fail Faire UK 2012 was brought to you by GSMA Development Fund and ICTworks. We had light refreshments to lubricate the conversation and there was an after-party to continue the celebration.

Featured Speakers

  • Tim Unwin, CEO, Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation
  • Martin Harris, Programme Director, GSMA Development Fund
  • Wayan Vota, Senior Director, Inveneo
  • Alan McNeil Jackson, Chief Technical Officer, Aptivate
  • Victor Lyons, Visiting Research Fellow, Royal Institution of Great Britain & CEO, ReadingWise
  • Harsha Liyanage, Principal Consultant, eNovation4D Associates, UK
  • Partick Hall, Language Technology Kendra, Kathmandu



We had an amazing sharing of failure at Fail Faire UK 2012, and amidst the laughter at how wrong we can be in deploying information and communication technologies to accelerate social and economic development, there were key lessons to learn. Lessons that cost millions of dollars, and unless we internalize them, will cost untold millions in future repetition.

So in the hopes that we can reduce future fails and increase success in ICT4D, I present to you the 8 lessons to learn from Fail Faire UK 2012:

  1. Failure will happen: When I am asked how to avoid failure I say that you should hire optimists. Why? Because failure will happen. It is the natural, normal, and valid result of pushing the boundaries of what is possible to scale from pilots to real impact. If you are not failing, you’re not trying hard enough, and you need optimists to recognize that failure is the mark of innovation and risk taking – key to growth and actual social and economic development that we all espouse to achieve.
  2. Timing is everything: Martin Harris worked hard on his startup idea, then took a two week vacation. On the day he sought financing for his venture, his first day back from vacation, Lehman Brothers collapsed. His grand plans of a venture capital-based future disappeared faster than the elevator ride to his appointment. Note to self: when you have a good idea, move fast as you never know what tomorrow brings.
  3. Know your target market habits: Harsha Liyanage thought farmers in Sri Lanka would be excited about trading via SMS. After two years of development and two years in deployment, he learned that farmers don’t trade via SMS. They want face-to-face interactions with local actors. The farmer’s wife or children do love modern technologies, and by leveraging their excitement for Facebook, Harsha was able to move from failure with farmers to success with social networking as a medium to connect farming families with new buyers.
  4. People are proud of their heritage: Patrick Hall thought he could help Nepalese localize software into the local language to accelerate ICT adoption, but found multiple challenges – donors wanted to run their own programs, private software companies wanted to do their own localization, and Nepalese wanted either an exact translation (without agreement on what “exact” was) or just use English. I’ve found this same issue in Tanzania, where the Microsoft translation of Windows and Office into Kiswahili is disliked because its Kenyan-accented Kiswahili.
  5. Take the money and run: Victor Lyons somehow bungled venture capital offerings of over $80 million when he founded an ecommerce startup, and after his business, marriage, and life went down in flames, found himself in India trying to used printed brochures to educate people who couldn’t read. Rather than giving up, he founded a literacy program, which received over a million dollars in funding – but none for salaries. His lesson learned multiple times is that money, in fact, does make the world go around, and we should not be too arrogant or too humble to accept it.
  6. Plan for succession: Too often we invest inordinate amount of responsibility and success into a few key actors. Allan McNeil Jackson did in his company, Aptivate, and when his two key salespeople left, it almost destroyed the company. It took every member of the organization rethinking their role and joining in the sales process to revive relationships and the company’s future.
  7. Be convinced of your convictions: Pamela McLean has spent the last 12 years trying to convince others of the worth and opportunity if development in Nigeria, often in a Quixotic effort to raise awareness that Nigeria does have promise and possibility. Yet she has not given up hope or slowed her pace of advocacy even though she was easily the most senior participant in Fail Faire UK 2012. For her energy alone, we should all be humbled.
  8. The only constant is change: Tomi Davies single-handedly worked to bring One Laptop per Child to Nigeria. He was amazingly successful – President Obasanjo agreed to buy 1 million XO laptops from Nicholas Negroponte in 2007, jumpstarting the OLPC program. In fact, that deal is why the XO is green and white – the colors of the Nigerian flag. Unfortunately, Tomi then had to contend with 6 different Minsters of Education over the next 6 years, a revolving ministerial door that is not unique to Africa.