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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Talking About Failure

Comments (27)

I’ve noticed a pattern in many of the VC and entrepreneur blogs I read – very few people ever talk about failure.  

Failure is a key part of entrepreneurship.  As an entrepreneur, angel investor, and venture investor, I’ve had lots of success, but I’ve also had lots of failures.  So has everyone that I know that has accomplished much of anything.

While it’s often difficult to talk about failure, there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from it.  The cliche “I learn more from my failures than my successes” applies directly to entrepreneurship and creating companies.  It can be difficult to be self-reflective, but I’ve personally found it very cathartic to study my failures, understand what I did wrong, learn as much as I can from them, and move on.  Occasionally I’ll have a similar failure a second time or a third time – hopefully I learn eventually.

I’m going to start writing more regularly on failure.  For those of you that have been involved in failed businesses with me, I’ll be careful about confidentiality – so many of my examples and stories will have the names changed unless I feel like sharing the posts with the people involved in advance.  I’ll try not to self-censor the stories, although the “personal denial / rewrite history impulse” is a often a tough one to overcome.

I also encourage my fellow entrepreneurial and VC bloggers to talk more about failures, alongside their successes.  Entrepreneurship is really hard and the lessons come from both sides of the equation.

  • Osman

    I’m glad to see this post.

    I’ve gained valuable insight from my failed startup efforts/projects. Still, there remains a strong backlash to talking about the project.

    I look forward to reading about (and learning from) your failed efforts.

  • http://www.venturegeek.com Nathan Dintenfass

    Amen!

    I recently graduated from b-school at Berkeley, and there too I found a dearth of failure stories. We had plenty of folks come through who told us about how great it was to hit a home run and get rich, but rarely would we talk about the dark side of entrepreneurship — maxing out your credit card, straining your relationships, then ending up with nothing. Of course, for most VCs the failures are less dramatic for their personal lives, but the lessons are more broadly applicable, perhaps.

    Of course, it’s much easier to talk about failure after success — but, I find the failures are generally glossed over when it’s just the setup for a punchline of the big win. You might consider asking entrepreneurs you know who have been through failure to do some guest blogging to get their perspectives into the mix.

    Perhaps even more important to explore than outright failure are the “hitting a single” businesses — stories of times that things didn’t bomb but also didn’t take off. How one knows when to pull the plug, when to sell instead of sticking it out, how to not get sucked into a blackhole of time trying to bail out a business that’s going nowhere, etc.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/marc/ Marc Hedlund

    I agree with the point — it’s important. I wrote up a piece (http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/03/entrepreneurial_proverbs.html) on being an entrepreneur, and failure was the second point. I learned a lot by failing, and while it completely sucked to close down my company, I don’t know how else I would have learned some of the things I wrote in that piece. So, thanks for the prod to write more like this.

  • http://www.mcrowne.com Mark Crowne

    I also agree. I haven’t blogged about my experiences as VP Engineering of a startup company, but I did write a paper which is available online at http://www.mcrowne.com/Documents/260.pdf – “Why software product startups fail, and what to do about it”.

    Regards,

    Mark

  • http://www.sharpshoot.blogspot.com Sumon

    Hi Brad,

    As a 23-yearold Entrepreneur based in the UK this is refreshing to see being acknowledged. The UK and British entrepreneurs in general suffer from an embarrassment of admiting failure. This compounded with the lower acceptance of entrepreneurship amongst the Youth means that most people don’t even get out of the blocks.

    I’ve been a serious Entrepreneur for a year-and-a-half and i’ve made mistakes which have meant the next time i pick myself up i’ve learnt a valuable lesson. In the lessons that i’ve learnt i’m happy to have admitted that i’ve failed because it gives me a different perspective on what i’m doing. Particularly for Young Entrepreneurs a wider acceptance that failure and experimentation are the key to success is a cultural shift that can be induced by people of your stature writing about it.

    Afterall, how can we know what to do if it can’t be contrasted with what we shouldn’t do.

    I look forward to hearing your experiences.

    Sumon

  • Jerry Colonna

    That’s ‘cuz there are no “failures;” only “lessons learned.”

    Amen to your observation.

  • http://blogs.inspions.net Murali

    Thanks for addressing the missing point, and the most useful aspect to starters like me. Looking forward to learning from the failures of other successful Entrepreneurs.

  • Jason

    You might find Ejovi Nuwere’s blog interesting (Founder of FON USA), he had a good piece business failures some time back http://www.ejovi.net/2005/10/22/business-failures/

  • anon

    This is a very good and helpful strain at a very helpful time. My firm’s VC fund is about to have its first portfolio company tip over and it’s a pretty incredible experience being in the midst of it. This will be my first exposure to this – there is a lot to take away from this.

  • http://www.clickbrain.com Brad Nickel

    I learned alot from Interliant. ;)

  • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

    So did I and I’d list that as my most spectacular failure. Hopefully I’ll have the courage to write thoughtfully about it.

  • http://bluescreen.alchemya.com Jawwad

    Brad

    Five years ago started working on a pet project on new venture failure. Started off with a review of literature and found that there were academic papers that focused on papers but their results and insights were “trivial”. As in you failed because you had insufficient capital, or didn’t generate enough sales, or weren’t able to collect on bills, or didn’t have enough experience and so on.

    I found that rather than read about data sets and the above mentioned conclusions I was far more interested in content that focused on “with hindsight, I would have rather done x”. I was also interested in the misery loves company concept – since I have failed I’d rather read about other failures, than read about the guy (or the firm) that made it.

    In the last five years, writing about my failures has been the best possible therapy (free or paid for) I could have managed for myself. Best of luck and I hope you have as much fun (http://bluescreen.alchemya.com) as I have had.

  • http://www.stevefarber.com Steve Farber

    Every business book that you pick up (including mine) will tell you how important failure is. That’s where our lessons come from, our character, our…umm…testicular fortitude. We all know this intellectually. The problem is we still interpret the subjective experience as “bad” when we’re in the midst of it; therefore, we have to start by “re-framing” the experience of failure as a good sign–a sign that, ultimately, we’re moving in the right direction, not the wrong one.

  • http://www.brianberliner.com/ Brian Berliner

    Hi Brad,

    I posted a related article to my blog titled “Search and Rescue, Death, and Failed Startups”. You can find it at:

    http://www.brianberliner.com/2006/09/05/search-and-rescue-death-and-failed-startups/

    What I learned doing Search and Rescue in Colorado and how analyzing Accidents in the outdoors can relate to startup failures. I hope you find it enjoyable.

    -Brian

  • http://www.imulus.com George Morris

    Here you go, we’ve decided to start a new series on our blog just about our failures.

    http://www.imulus.com/blog/index.php/2006/12/06/learning-from-failures-transitioning-sites/

    Enjoy

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