You say “fuck up”, I say “how hard?”

This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave at the 2017 Rockets and Unicorns, the startup space at the Medientage München. This year’s event will be from 24–26 October, you can check it out here.

This talk was supposed to be called: The 10 Mistakes I won’t make with the next company I start. But then I found out: They would let me call it anything I want. And then one thing kind of led to another. So now I call it: You say “fuck up,” I say “how hard?”
Because by now I know that no matter how much you learn, you still are going to fuck up. So you might as well enjoy it. And you might as well as make your peace with it. Because fucking up is the price you pay for creating your own job and for carving out your own place in the media world, instead of having a career somewhere.

The big difference is: As a startup founder there is no one to blame for your mistakes but yourself. And this may seem like no big deal. But it is.

It’s very easy and very good fun to go to Fuckup Nights and have some beer and listen to the speakers and think: “Yeah, it’s cool to be open about your mistakes. Yeah, we need to lift the stigma on failure. Yeah, we Germans need to embrace some of this American ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ spirit.”
But in practice, this is actually very hard.

In my experience, many people have a huge problem with admitting mistakes. Young and old, men and women alike. Even in small work matters they just can’t say the words: I fucked up. They rather say things like: “Ah, that wasn’t handled so well.” Vast amounts of hours and energy are being wasted on covering asses every day.

If you have a hard time stepping up and humbling yourself — don’t become a startup founder. For two reasons. One: Stepping up and admitting mistakes is very liberating. It makes you feel better. Two: If you are not comfortable with admitting errors you won’t be able to make necessary business decisions as quickly as you need. Because it’s not just about the “I destroyed my company”-fuckups. It’s about the many little day-to-day fuckups: “Yeah, that sucks, I was wrong, let’s scrap it and do something else.” Your ego can and will get in the way of admitting mistakes like that and making vital decisions. Because your ego will insist that you are right. And that it’s just everybody and everything else that needs to change. Customers. Advertisers. Foundations. Investors.

Mistakes that are on you and nobody else are a considerable part of what you sign up for as a startup founder. You need to be aware of this. And my recommendation is: Take some time for introspection on a regular basis. Am I in touch with me? Am I honest with myself? Am I honest with everyone around me? Am I still capable of feeling what’s going on and what is happening to me? Meditation helps with this, Mindfulness training helps. I did an eight-week MBSR course, and it was one of my best decisions ever.

So to sum this up: It’s not about what mistakes you can or can’t avoid. It’s about being aware that you will make them. And about being able to deal with them on a daily basis. That’s one reason why I didn’t call this The 10 mistakes I won’t make with the next company I start.

The other reason is: It is easy to read these “secrets to success”-listicles and think: Duh, that’s a no-brainer! But it’s an entirely different thing to remember these lessons and to apply them in practice.

When we told our startup coaches about the great stuff we read in Running Lean after we crashed they wanted to beat us up. Because they had told us the exact same things: Start with a minimum viable product, test, and scale up from there. But did we listen? Nooooo! Because, really, what’s “minimum viable reporting” supposed to look like?

When we started our company Fail Better Media in 2013, we wanted to create THE kick-ass digital magazine on science and technology. It would be a science magazine that would tell great stories. And it would do all the fancy digital shit you could do on a tablet (which were still hot in 2013). So starting out small with a newsletter or whatever was not an option. Neither was making our friends work for free, we wanted to pay everyone involved a decent wage. So we did all that, and we started Substanz, and we got the recognition, and we got the awards. And we went totally broke rather quickly.

There is no shortage of good advice for startup founders. The question is: Are you willing and able to listen? This can be hard. And I think that if you are building a journalism startup, it is even harder. Because if you are serious about journalism, you don’t have just another product, you have a MISSION. And not the “we are really passionate about changing the way people order food”-kind of mission. You have a “we are really passionate about helping to prevent this society from falling apart” mission. Because you help people to stay informed and you help them to have actual conversations instead of just shouting at one another.

As a journalism founder, you may feel entitled to success. You may think that the world owes you recognition. Because you provide something that is missing, that the big publishing houses do not provide, and that is necessary for society. And you might be right. But businesswise that doesn’t mean shit. I have talked to startup founders who told me “we’re going to raise a paywall now.” And I ask them: “What’s your sales pitch?” And they go, “well, if you like our journalism and you want us to stay around, you have to give us money, or we won’t do it anymore.” And I go, “hmm, well, that sales pitch might need some work.”

The downside of having a mission is: It makes it harder to listen to the people you should listen to really. Or listen to the tiny voice inside you that is the voice of reason, the voice that tells you what’s right for you if you don’t want to end up killing yourself.

You might have experienced this situation: You sit together at a table with some people who you have recruited or are just here to discuss your idea. And you get all excited on them because you have this idea, and you just want to make everyone see how great it is and CAN’T THEY JUST SEE HOW OBVIOUS IT ALL IS? And they look at you. And they go: “Huh. Yeah. Ummm…” And you immediately start talking again because you are ON FIRE and obviously they HAVEN’T GOTTEN IT YET because otherwise they would go “YEAH, LET’S DO THIS”!

This happens especially at times when you are trying to secure funding. Because you give so many presentations and spend so much time trying to convince people that you can become really entrenched in your own greatness. If you don’t watch out for this, it is tough to do good teamwork. You can end up frustrating everybody. You can frustrate them to the point that with every little thing they will wait for you to explain how you want to have it done. So there is a real danger that you will be speaking AT the people that have agreed to help you instead of actually speaking WITH them.

One thing that I have found very helpful: Go visual. Get your people in a room, get a flipchart, draw your ideas, put them up on a wall, explain them quickly and then declare open season on them AND SHUT YOUR MOUTH. It’s super productive.

What is the core of what I am offering? WHY do people need it? WHY will their lives be BETTER with what I am building? This is so hard to answer with journalism. We have to work extra hard to make people understand that THIS piece of journalism is not just another piece of “content.”

So: What is the core of your idea? The one thing that you must deliver from day one? The one thing that can’t wait until you’ve established your journalism brand and are growing?

With Substanz it was the quality of our reporting. We had stories that made people want to learn about things they hadn’t been interested in before. But instead of focusing on that we also spent money and resources on photography, artwork, and programming special effects. So every week we published a piece that cost 2700 Euro to produce.

And then subscriptions weren’t coming in fast enough, and we already had our backs against the wall because the whole product development had been way more expensive than we expected. So we crashed and burned, and we have spent a lot of time getting over the worst.

We’ve been doing a lot of contract work, we produce content, we do content marketing, and even though that’s not what we set out to do it’s still great. It not only pays the bills. It also makes us appreciate the mechanics of the digital media world pragmatically like we couldn’t when we were doing Substanz.

We still believe in journalism, and this is still where we want to make our contribution. It’s taking more time and a longer, more winding road than we thought. But we are getting there. And I am happy we decided to start Fail Better Media and develop Substanz, even with all the crap that happened to us. Because in the end these experiences pay off, and by now we have some very cool projects we are working on.

Being able to survive as a human being and as a startup founder has a lot to do with being able to feel. With accepting hard truths. And with believing that things will work out if you are really okay with what you are doing.

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