Recently I was a guest at the ROI Conference, speaking in my role as co-founder and director of Ignite, an established accelerator programme that is part of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s prominent startup community. I was on a panel discussing innovation, during which I made an unrehearsed comment; I can’t remember the exact words, but they were to the effect that people who say “it’s ok to fail” should spend a little more time shutting the hell up.
I went on to explain my reasoning — “celebrating failure” has somehow become an acceptable outcome for a tech startup, to the point that failing often seems to be afforded as much respect as succeeding. “There’s a difference between saying failure is probable,” I suggested, “and promoting it as acceptable.”
Unsurprisingly the comments raised eyebrows and drew criticism — because failing is what startups are all about, apparently — so I wanted to expand on my comments.
Every business has different objectives and goals, but whether the founders dream of a billion dollar exit or simply wish to scratch a creative itch, if it’s a commercial entity then there needs to be success of some sort.
Failure is the wrong outcome. No startup presents a business plan to investors that explains in detail how they’re going to go bust in nine months. So if you didn’t start your business with the explicit intention of failing, then failure is the wrong place to end up.
Failure is acceptable in specific situations. When you experiment to determine the nature of your business by testing assumptions, failure in some shape or form is to be expected — that’s the nature of experimentation. Makeshift build and test startup ideas to the point of success or failure, or somewhere in-between; they’re in the business of experimenting, and so failure is not only likely, but expected.
Most businesses aren’t experiments. A startup that fails may be a common occurrence, but founders should never feel comfortable with the possibility, however likely the statistics state it is. The risk of going bust, people losing their jobs and others losing their money — that should never sit easy with a founder.
This isn’t to say startups should be risk-averse — for the sake of innovation, it’s vital that founders challenge the status quo. All startups should give themselves permission to fail, but shouldn’t be oblivious to the consequences if they do. Yet the mantras that startups should “celebrate failure” and “shouldn’t be afraid to fail” have been taken literally by many. Failure has somehow become a fashionably acceptable outcome; startups can go bust because of dreadful execution or woeful market knowledge, and founders are immediately surrounded by a circlejerk of backslapping.
There is no kudos in getting things so horribly wrong that you took yourself out. Failing should hurt. You should wince, you should cry yourself to sleep after another relentless 20 hour day that went from bad to worse. Failing will leave bruises, it may scar you like a blade. Your friends and family should be there to support you, but you shouldn’t be mollycoddled, nor should you be told to expect otherwise. You fucked up.
Once you’ve dressed your wounds, you should do everything to learn and recognise why you’re a failure. Accept your mistakes; Makeshift’s product page doesn’t shy away from deadpooled projects that didn’t work out, because they “remind [them] what not to do next time.” Run a finger across your scars. Remember the pain of earning them.
Then what? To paraphrase a great and entirely fictional man:
“Why do we fail? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
And this is the lesson we should take the time to teach, instead of gamifying failure as an accomplishment well earned. It’s not the act of failing we should celebrate, but our exploitation of the potential it creates. If we don’t build upon the knowledge of why we failed, then all the effort it took to fail is squandered. If we don’t step up to take another shot then we waste the beating we took, we waste the potential our failure presents.
I appreciate the sentiment of the mantras, but we’ve lost our way amidst celebrations of mediocrity. Teams should have permission to fail but shouldn’t consider their actions immune to the laws of nature. If we’re happy to preach that failure is acceptable, we may as well pat entrepreneurs on the head and patronise them as we do small children, and tell them it’s the taking part that counts. Instead, let’s be honest — actually, it’s not ok for a business to fail, but we’ll redeem ourselves if we have the strength to recognise and realise the opportunity it offers us. Failure can be a great foundation for success, but foundations are meaningless unless we build on them.
That’s the nuance in the message we need to reinforce:
Good can come of failure, but failure itself isn’t inherently good.
We should fear it, because failure bloodies our nose and breaks our bones — but we should always, always pick ourselves up. When we do, we’ll stand taller and we’ll walk further, and that’s truly worthy of celebration.