Enough with the Failure Posts!
For the umpteenth time in the last few months, I was greeted by another failure article when I logged into my Medium feed the other day. This one followed the exact same pattern as all of the others that I’ve read. X startup’s founder pours their heart out about their company’s failure, and then tries to caution other founders on avoiding the same pitfalls that they fell into.
This is all well and good, but I have a major issue with these posts. The fact of the matter is that these founders should have known better in the first place.
For some reason, the world has become enamored with failure. It’s the new flavor of the month and everyone is talking about failure as if it were the new success. For pity’s sake, there is actually a conference that is built on the idea of failure! If that’s not a sign of the apocalypse, then I don’t know what is.
But what many of the people praising failure seem to ignore is that you’re not supposed to just learn from your personal failures, but from those around you as well.
For instance, I too have a very high threshold for failure when it comes to my employees and myself. I wrote about this in a previous article. I think that failure is an essential part of growth. My only caveat with failure is that you can’t continue failing at the same thing over and over again. You have to learn. But with all of the failure praising going on, I think I need to add another qualifier to my tolerance of failure. The new qualifier is that you MUST also learn from other people’s failures.
You Are Not A Beautiful And Unique Snowflake
I often tell my team members that they are not snowflakes. There is nothing unique or beautiful about what they’re going through. They’re experiencing the exact same things that countless people before them have experienced. And I don’t do this to insult them, but rather I do it to give them perspective. If they know that others have gone through what they’ve gone through, then they know that others have found a way out and were able to overcome the exact same problems. This makes them realize that they’re not alone and that there are roadmaps to follow.
A funny thing happens when you stop viewing your problems as unique. When faced with the reality that others have overcome the same issues, you realize that there’s nothing limiting you from achieving the same results. Even though the thought that you’re not as special as your mother told you that you were might seem demoralizing, it’s actually quite empowering. When you accept that your problems are common place, you suddenly are supported by all those who went before you and were able to come out the other end.
Why Do Founders Ignore This Advice?
Maybe as entrepreneurs we require a healthy dose of hubris in order to do the things that we know are sometimes crazy. After all, who would willingly give up a steady income and stability in order to start a company where success is not guaranteed, and is actually a long shot?
And maybe this hubris is what leads us to thinking we’re unique, and that our story will end differently than all of the other ones we’ve read. But, getting back to those failure posts, I don’t understand why we have blinders on when it comes to the basic tenets of doing business.
For instance, there are common threads in most of the failure articles I’ve read. One of the big ones is that the founders warn others that they shouldn’t buy into the hype that develops around their startup and that they should really worry about what the customer thinks and not what investors and the general public perceive. In short, they say that other founders should focus on finding a product/market fit and that they need to provide something of real value.
And to this sage advice, I have but one response… REALLY?!
That’s your big epiphany you spent tens of millions of dollars in venture funding to come up with? Look, maybe it’s because I bootstrapped all of my companies, but that kind of seems like common sense to me. In fact, I wouldn’t have had any success at any point if I didn’t first look for a product/market fit. How on earth could I have grown a company if my customers didn’t really want what I was offering?
Maybe this is a problem is that’s unique to venture funded companies because they have cash to prop up products that are looking for a problem to solve. But there’s a danger of other companies seeing the headlines and the glamor that the “unicorns” are garnering, and potentially deluding themselves into thinking they should follow suit. In fact, I know this is becoming an issue since I personally know several founders who have built successful companies and are now rolling the dice on launching a new product. Their product launch strategies follow the venture model as opposed to the steadier model that allowed them to build their current companies. And that’s when I start getting nervous.
When Times Are Good, Winners Are Plentiful
I could get into all of the other common sense mistakes that these failure articles discuss in a way that makes them seem like they’re entirely new concepts, but I think you get the point. My true intention of this article is to let other founders know that they too are not unique snowflakes. There is nothing unique and special about your situation. The minute you start believing that, you’ll start believing that you require unique solutions to your problems.
The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of losers masquerading as winners right now. When the markets are propped up by debt and venture capital, companies are able to dress themselves in the garb of an industry leader, while hiding their inadequacies below their robes. And to the outside world, all we see are their extravagant garments and we shout, “How marvelous! Look at their success!”
But while these losers can fool the masses for a short time with their borrowed cash, they cannot fool the market. The market is a dispassionate creature that cares nothing for your headlines, your funding announcements, or your launch parties. The market is a cold and calculated beast that always works on the same basic principles; supply and demand. If at the end of the day you are not supplying something that your customers are demanding, you’ll fail. And no matter how you spin that failure, if you ignored the warning signs and believed that you were breaking new ground and blazing your own path, then that failure lands squarely on your shoulders. And all the mea culpas in the world won’t pay back your investors or make your employees losing their jobs sting any less.
This story originally ran on my Forbes column.