Here are five results I received on the first page of my Google search for ‘Startup Failure Quotes’:
- 50 Inspirational Quotes for Startups and Entrepreneurs
- 17 Inspirational Quotes About Failure
- 20 Inspiring Quotes on How to Build a Successful Startup
- 101 Kickass Startup Quotes
- 25 Inspirational Startup Quotes
Who knew failure was so inspirational?
Here’s another fun fact about the quotes you’ll find when searching for information about failed startups: they are almost all from individuals who have been wildly successful. When did we decide that Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, and Michael Jordan were our go-to experts on failure?
The point here is that ‘failure’ is an extremely trendy topic in the startup world. But in all of this praise for failure, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re really talking about. Here are some practical pieces of advice to help us keep failure in proper perspective.
Define ‘Failure’ for Yourself
When Tom Kelley (General Manager of IDEO) wrote, “Fail often so that you can succeed sooner,” he probably wasn’t talking about the kind of failure that caused Curt Schilling to say, “I’ll find myself in the middle of the day, just aching.” Failure is not an absolute; it comes in degrees. Kelly, Edison, Gates, and Jordan are really talking about not succeeding in very particular instances. Understand for yourself what degree of failure is going to leave you with that persistent aching feeling described by Schilling because it is different for everyone. Then understand what lesser degrees of failure you can get comfortable with.
The good failures that are so widely praised in the current startup literature tend to be very small ones. The Lean Startup conception of failure is an individual test that is unsuccessful but teaches you a valuable lesson. It represents a few weeks of work or a few thousand dollars of cash. It is perfectly consistent to embrace this doctrine of failure while still being fearful of large-scale failures that cost you millions of investor dollars or put all of your employees out on the street.
Plan for Failure
Small failures are good (even critical) learning experiences, as long as you are prepared for them. Implicit in Kelley’s imperative to fail often so you can succeed sooner is the assumption that you are holding resources in reserve. Do not throw all of your seed money at one test and expect to raise an A round to run the next test after the first fails. Build a reasonable number of failures into your roadmap and steward your resources such that you can weather those failures until a success is within sight.
Real failure – big, unplanned-for failure – is extremely painful. It is financially costly, personally costly, and humiliating. It can harm your investors and your employees in addition to yourself. Its consequences can be long lasting. Don’t turn a blind eye to the magnitude of real failure. Force yourself to consider it. Then avoid it at all costs. Avoid it through hard work, savvy stewardship, honesty with yourself and other stakeholders, and ultimately proper planning. Let a sober understanding of the consequences of failure help propel you along the path toward success.