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When to Throw In The Towel On An Idea

Mark Junkans

BadIdeasFrontJohn had a great idea for a new church program that would reach new people and impact their lives.  He was going to do something new in a church that hadn't seen anything truly new happen in years.  He wanted to start a clothes closet to serve the needs of the poor and possibly even train some as volunteers/employees.

Over the course of a few months, he did his homework, talked to people about the idea, gauged interest level and planned the project.  He researched other similar projects in other churches and, based on best practices and examples, he designed a doable program that would fit both his congregation and the needs of the community.  It was an uphill battle to get people on board with his idea, but eventually his fellow church members agreed that a clothes closet was a good idea.  He got the green light to go ahead to recruit volunteers, rent a small space and advertise the need for donations.

Things began to really move forward as more people found out about the program.  People donated their clothing, so much so that he soon needed an additional storage space.  Little by little, people were coming from the community to shop as well.  While they never broke even on their expenses, they got a lot of attention.  Everyone believed that this was good thing.  After a year of operation, however, John was frustrated.  The store wasn't selling enough to keep up with expenses and donated clothing was also piling up.  He found himself running the store most of the time as volunteers weren't consistent.  The church was also beginning to think that this wasn't such a good idea, but was struggling for some time to figure out what to do about it.  They were still subsidizing part of the rental costs due to inadequate revenue.  An unspoken tension was growing between John and his supporters.

If you are an entrepreneurial type, then you know what this feels like.  You have probably started projects like this that sounded good but didn't achieve the expected results.  That time of uncertainty about a new business or a new program is a tough place to be in.

Entrepreneurial Traps

There are several traps that founders, entrepreneurs and funders fall into when a program begins to fail.

  1. Believing that the idea is too good to fail, and will eventually work if given more time.
  2. Believing that we can always just work harder to make this work.
  3. Believing that the problem is lack of promotion.  "We just need to sell this to more people."
  4. Getting stuck in the emotion of not wanting to pull the plug because of who is involved.
  5. Substituting antidotal stories for hard facts.

How to know when to throw in the towel?

Good Idea - Bad Implementation

Most people driven by an idea often believe that the idea itself is strong enough to carry the day, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Their passion for the idea/project is contagious and people who care about them don't want to crush their spirit by not supporting it.  Creators of good ideas aren't always the best process thinkers that can design a successful venture of program.

One important thing to remember is that good ideas don't normally work that well the first time around. Most ideas take several attempts before they actually work as expected.  Many times the idea isn't at fault, but the implementation of the idea.  If things aren't working as expected after a period of time, the plan should be evaluated and tweaked.  If results are still not there, the plan should be scrapped and a new one put in its place that allows for new leadership, systems, etc.

If the project still isn't working as expected, it may be time to pull the plug, regroup and retry in a different way.  New projects/ideas have a greater probability of failure than of success.  Remember that failure will happen, but it's best to fail as quickly and as cheaply as possible.  If it's still a good idea after failure, then go back to planning for another attempt when possible, but don't allow one failure to ruin the entrepreneurial spirit to keep flowing.

Bad Idea

As an entrepreneur or starter, one of the hardest things to discern is when an idea is actually good or not.  The idea must be then vetted by data, research and throwing it against enough walls to see where it sticks.  If you come to the conclusion that your idea is a bad one, it shouldn't be hard to let it go and throw in the towel.  Probably the hardest thing for an idea person to admit is that his/her idea wasn't a good one.  Remember that, no matter how far down the road you are in implementing a bad idea, it's never too late to quit.  The longer you run with a bad idea, the harder it will be pull the plug due to momentum.  If you don't pull the plug, you will delay spending your energy on implementing a good one.


Last week I saw a boxing trainer throw in the towel while his son was getting pummeled in the last round.  After the fight he had to spend some time calming down his son, who had never experienced defeat in the ring as a pro.  I'm sure his advice is pretty much the same as I would give.  There will always be another fight, but this one wasn't worth dying over.