The unexpected virtue of failure

Dedicated to the foolishness of the entrepreneurial spirit that instructs us to aim for the stars when our senses tell us to get a steady job.

Failure — something everyone has in common. All of us have experienced it at some point in our lives. Moreover, it is how we are accustom to learn from the minute you take your first fall from a high chair or decide that dog food looks appetizing. However, one of the most important things about failure, is the actual failing. And it is…HARD. The emotions after failing can quite literally consume you. But failing is a significant part of being an entrepreneur.

“Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death. …So if that sounds appealing…” — Elon Musk

To put all of this into perspective here’s a story about a failed startup:

In 3o days, my startup will be be dead
Almost 2 years ago today, I quit my day job and started building something. After months of customer development, discussions with my wife about my plans, savings and sleepless nights, I finally decided to take the plunge.
I’m glad I did
That day I quit my job marked the beginning of an epic roller coaster ride. One that saw me hit the top of TechCrunch, hire employees and become a rising star in the technology world. Glowing in our new-found success and ramen-riches, we got an offer that seemed to be the key to making it huge. We were offered a spot in a very well known accelerator.
They say accelerators speed up success and failure, in our case, all it sped up was our ability to play the startup game. Continue reading…

I personally recommend reading the whole blog (“bottom to top”), because it provides a good sense, of what it is like to fail.

If you are entrepreneur or thinking of starting something new, the most advice you’ll ever hear about failure will be dry— such as “fail quickly” or “fail forward”. This kind of statements are useless without a framework for learning. What’s really important is to actually admit the failure, own it and know it.

I have talked to many entrepreneurs, heard a range of failure stories and it seems that the most common reasons for startup failure are: team, value proposition, market and business model.

What about technology? Well, from my experience good teams rarely fail to deliver well-built products. However, if market need was assessed poorly, a well-built product is just useless. According to majority of studies on the matter (and you can check if you wish) most startups fail because they didn't have a solid team to assess the market opportunities, deliver a value proposition or couldn't find a sustainable business model.

Knowing all of that. The question is, how to avoid - failure? And should you?

Well…

When was the last time you've heard about a breakthrough, that didn't involve any experimentation? Alternately have you ever heard about experimentation, that didn't involve any failure? All things considered, without failure we wouldn't have post-it notes, pacemakers or penicillin. Failure is not simply an inexorable piece of innovation — it is a vital piece of the breakthroughs, we have made in order to address the numerous issues that test our undeniably overpopulated, resource constrained and ever changing planet.

All of these issues carry huge entrepreneurial opportunities. However, we’ll never be able to take advantage of them without taking leaps of faith that potentially involve — failure.

However, not all failures are made equal. We need to be able to separate the ones that could have been prevented from those that are outside our ability to control. For instance, entrepreneurs ought to separate between business failure and execution failure.

On the other hand, you might want to avoid failure altogether and one of the best ways to do so, is to try and learn from others.

Failure is powerful in light of the fact that it is so compelling: it nearly always comes with a decent story, a notice and (let’s be honest) schadenfreude all in one neat, extremely human envelope. But once again, this does not mean that you ought not to take chances, or lapse into dreading failure.

Until now the problem was that people didn't really talk about failure all that much and that’s a pity. Even more so, because so many others could have derived some solid cautionary advice or maybe some beguilement in hearing from somebody obviously more foolish than them. However things are changing.

There has been a surge of ingenious initiatives such as FuckUp Nights, which are like TED Talks with more booze and less splendid displays. The monthly events usually feature businessmen and entrepreneurs sharing their most spectacular failures in an relaxed and humorous way, taking everyone through what went wrong and what they would do differently. FuckUp Nights have originated in Mexico, but have already spread to more than 100 cities across the globe. If you want to organize FuckUp Nights in your city or have a good story to share — here’s an email.

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By the way, if you’re around Copenhagen on June 5th, be sure to attend FuckUp Nights Copenhagen. To learn more, follow them on Facebook.