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As I was going through my morning information routine, I noticed a number of articles that I’d put in the “how to not fail” bucket. I read a few of these and noticed a consistent tone of “failure is bad – here’s how to avoid it.”
Throughout my life and career I’ve failed at many things, large and small. I view failure as a fundamental part of every entrepreneurial endeavor, whether it’s a failed project, hire, partnership, relationship, lead, customer, or even the entire business. One of the great things about entrepreneurship in America is that failure is an accepted part of the cycle.
I used to say something like “one of the great things about America is that failure is acceptable.” When great people fail, they acknowledge it, learn from it, get up, dust themselves off, and get back at it. If you accept reality, you can fail gracefully and hopefully learn something from it. It’s never fun – and it can be really stressful / painful / emotionally hard – but it’s a part of learning, evolving, and growing stronger and better.
While I fail at stuff regularly, I’ll never forget the deepest cycle of failure I’ve been in to date. As the Internet bubble
popped exploded, company after company that I was an investor in failed. As I grappled with this, I felt like I had been run over by a truck. After I got up, a steamroller came and flattened me. As I was peeling myself off the ground, the steamroller backed up and smushed me again. Then, I realized I was lying on top of a hole and the top fell in and I tumbled down to the bottom. As I was looking up at the sky, some jerk came into view, poured gasoline onto me, and then dropped a flaming stick on top of me. By the summer of 2001, I realized that ever day had been worse than the previous day. I no longer got up in the morning and said “ok – today will be better than yesterday”; instead I resolved myself that every day would be worse, until it eventually got better. Then 9/11 happened.
I hung in there, kept getting up every day and doing my best, working hard to make informed and intelligent decisions, and helping all of the companies I was an investor in however I could. A few more failed, but a nice number survived and ultimately thrived. Things eventually got better. And I learned a lot.
In my world view, the best leaders understand that failure is an integral part of things. The cliche “fail fast” is one of my favorites. When things aren’t working, deal with it. Another is the famous line from Atlas Shrugged “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatever.” Denying that failure is part of our existence is akin to faking reality.
While I accept “the experience of failure” feels “negative / crappy / depressing / hard / sucky”, I don’t believe that “failure is bad.” Deal with it, learn from it, pick yourself up, and try again.
I’ve made a large number of mistakes in my life. My goal when I make a mistake is to understand what I did wrong, learn from it, pick myself up, and move forward. When I’ve made the same mistake for the third time, I usually finally figure out what I’m doing wrong.
While I’ve also had plenty of success, I never get confused about where most of my lessons come from. In case this is ever ambiguous from my writing, I learn the vast majority of my lessons from my failures. I also have learned what I don’t know, and have figured out that I shouldn’t venture into areas where I’m clueless unless I am willing to spend a lot of time up front researching them – at least to the point where I’m no longer completely clueless.
Matt McCall points us to a great essay by James Montier from Societe General titled Mind Matters: An admission of ignorance; a humble approach to investing. I thought it was right on and was nicely reinforced by Matt’s very personal post titled Ignorance and Humility.
Alex Muse has a long, detailed post up about How [He] lost $20,000,000+ in 18 months. It’s the story of his experience with LayerOne – the first version and the second version. It’s a useful story on failure that harkens back to 2001 with a nice redemption twist at the end.
It’s unusual for a founder to write a long thoughtful post on the failure of his company. Roger Ehrenberg – the co-founder of Monitor110 – which shut down earlier this week, did just that on his outstanding post titled Monitor110: A Post Mortem. The post is oriented around Roger’s "seven deadly sins":
- The lack of a single, "the buck stops here" leader until too late in the game
- No separation between the technology organization and the product organization
- Too much PR, too early
- Too much money
- Not close enough to the customer
- Slow to adapt to market reality
- Disagreement on strategy both within the Company and with the Board
Every person in every company that I’m involved with should read this post carefully. Every entrepreneur should also. Failure is part of the entrepreneur experience – Roger has done us all a great service by being willing to be deeply introspective and share his thoughts on what went wrong at Monitor110 in such a direct way.
A reader (thanks Austin) sent me two great failure links today. The first is from BoingBoing and is titled J.K. Rowling on the power of failure. It’s an excellent short segment from her excellent Harvard Commencement Address titled The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.
The next is a sign made entirely out of push pins that says "Fail Harder".
I spent the afternoon at TechStars meeting with five of the ten teams. They are all dynamite, although some of them will fail at their current incarnation. Just remember – fail hard, fast, and then get up and try again.