I failed. There, I said it. I set out to save all the children of the world, or at least around Philadelphia, and I failed to do so. Through my start-up, CODA Program, myself and my co-founder were on a mission. The mission was simple: to align artists and musicians with the children that need music and a way to express themselves. With no marketing, CODA Program spread word of mouth from a simple workshop to our own office, instruction at multiple locations, year-long curriculum tracks, multiple facilitators, and countless smiles from happy students and parents. And after eight years, it simply fizzled out like nothing ever happened.
A few things set us on the course to fizzling. Rather than get into them all, there was a particular moment that caused me to question the path we were on and whether or not we were having any impact. On a cool but sunny September day, I drove to a local school to pick up the various musical equipment we had left in our “studio.” For over a year, we operated a music recording and rehearsal studio within a school. We convinced the administration to just give us an empty room. We cleaned it. We brought in our own equipment and further convinced them to invest in more. However, after our client’s funding ran out we simply couldn’t afford to pay our staff to occupy the space. The room went unused for over six months. Keyboards, drums, and recording equipment were locked away in a dusty room. As I approached the school, I saw a particular former student outside “on the block.” He was a good kid so who knows what he was really doing outside. But from a stereo-typical viewpoint, he would certainly cause question. This kid had talent though. At the same school, we used to run a student open-mic. He would show up and rap. But not just like anyone, this kid could easily challenge the majority of super-stars on the radio. However, as I drove past, he was just back outside on the block. There were not many options for young kids in that neighborhood and as I prayed that he would not become a statistic, I felt a pain in my side. I had failed him.
As I pulled up outside of the school and got out of my car, I saw another former student. This young man actually attended a few of our music classes and private lessons. “Hey! Is music class today!?” he asked way too eagerly. I just looked at him and said “Nah man. Good seeing you though.” A series of questions and emotions ran through me. Had he not had any music class since I saw him last, six months ago? Of course he had not! I failed him as well.
I quickly and quietly went about my business, avoiding eye contact with other former students while I emptied our celebrated music studio. I just wanted to grab my mic, a few other items, and get out of there. I left a stereo and a few instruments, and proceeded to tell a staff member that she could feel free to use whatever was left as they saw fit. She just smiled and said “Oh don’t worry, we will lock them away where they’ll be safe.” This counter-intuitive, but understandable, logic plagues the school system. There are limited resources so you have to keep them safe. But rather than let students use them without supervision, the equipment will simply sit in a locked closet somewhere until they are useless or forgotten.
I felt heavy as I drove home. I specifically remember the contrast of the clear, sunny sky, to how I felt. Only years later can I appreciate that that was the moment where I realized we had not achieved our goal. Something did not work and something had to be different.
As we slowly started passively winding CODA Program down, I found a new source of commitment. I knew I had to get better at something. So I went back to school for an MBA. While this further shook my self-identity as an full-time entrepreneur, what I started to appreciate was that in failing, I could clearly say I had tried. I tried hard and I learned a tremendous amount. We also implemented thousands of workshops and programs to tens of thousands of students. We never quantified our results (another lesson learned) but deep down I know that at least a few kids out there have fond memories of what they learned with us.
Moving forward, I am making a point to share both my success and my lessons learned. My goal is to self-heal, gain a deeper understanding of my own experiences, and offer insight to anyone that may read this. Without failure, we cannot learn. And in embracing failure, we can fully appreciate the lessons.