3 min read

How to Fail

There’s a lot written these days about failing forward and failing fast. That’s nice if you’re top tech company, you’re growing faster than you can keep up and your failures are forgotten faster than they’re created. But failure for small entrepreneurs tend to be painful and costly. Most entrepreneurs want not to fail, because enough small failures can mean costing them the business.

Failure is what most people fear most about jumping into entrepreneurship. Embracing entrepreneurship is in a way embracing failure. They’re tied at the hip. The perception is likely that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who’ve failed the fewest times or not really failed at all. It’s the opposite. The most successful entrepreneurs have failed more times than they care to count or mention.

Think of Google's big and yet now forgotten failures. Early on (2002), there was Google Answers, a competitor to Yahoo Answers. It never got traction and slowly faded, while Quora, which launched in 2009, sees over 800M visitors every month. There's Google Wave, which was to change email and communication and was estimated to have to cost $1B in development. I don't think anyone could understand it. Google Buzz was their social media competitor to Twitter and Facebook and flopped massively. It was killed a year after it launched and no doubt took a huge amount of resources.

Google succeeds because they're willing to take risks and fail. Google also bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.5B which was a huge amount then for an acquisition. This was well before billion dollar acquisitions. Now YouTube could be worth upwards of $200B as a stand-alone entity as is thought to bring in $30B in annual revenue for Google. With each of it's failures, Google was pushing the envelope and evolving their platform into new spaces. The companies that aren’t evolving are the ones that are truly failing.

When I first decided I wanted to start a company more than 15 years ago, I came up with a concept in the consumer space, worked with designers and spent hours and hours ideating on it. I’d talk about the idea with friends who were all excited about it. It came down to committing the capital to proceed with the first order. I had the money for the first order, but struggled to pull the trigger. The (pseudo) company died a quiet death. I just stopped talking about it. Months later, I’d run into friends who excitedly would ask how the product was doing. I’d regrettably tell them I never ended up ordering the product. I didn’t learn much through the process, except on how to ideate.

Entrepreneurship isn’t about ideating, it’s about taking risk, taking action and moving projects forward. I was a classic wantrepreneur. I hadn’t even failed correctly. You don’t learn by ideating, you learn by testing and shipping a product. Get it out there.

There are some important things to understand about failure.

Failure is the process. Look to the most successful companies and see how they manage their failures. If Facebook didn’t allow itself to fail, it wouldn’t be allowing itself to innovate and lead. If you’re trying to avoid failure at all costs then you aren’t doing the right things to best enable success.

Learn, reframe, rebound and pivot from your failures.  Don’t bury your failure immediately. The only true failures are the ones you don’t learn from. Analyze the failure. Look at your assumptions, at your model, at your product, at every step to see what you could have done differently or better. In every case, you can’t know everything and most of the time the only way to know if there’s demand for a product, service, idea is to create and ship it.

Own your failure. With a failure, the tendency will be to hide it. Or even worse, by not giving it enough commitment capital to succeed in the first place. We live in an amazing country at an amazing time. Entrepreneurs are held in high esteem. Fail publicly, fail loudly, and tout your failure. Brag about it, wear it as a badge. That will cure the shame. You’ve got the balls that millions of people don’t. Everyone has an idea for a product or business, only a handful but that idea into motion and commit to it. Wear that badge proudly. Make it the best damn failure anyone’s seen.