Previous Submission

Failure is SO hot right now

Next Submission

4 steps for making sense of this bizarre craze and getting on the right side of failure.

Here are five results I received on the first page of my Google search for ‘Startup Failure Quotes’:

  1. 50 Inspirational Quotes for Startups and Entrepreneurs
  2. 17 Inspirational Quotes About Failure
  3. 20 Inspiring Quotes on How to Build a Successful Startup
  4. 101 Kickass Startup Quotes
  5. 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.

Fail Small

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.

Respect Failure

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.

3 thoughts on “Failure is SO hot right now

  1. Hi Jay, really like the post! Your post reminded me of something I’ve heard multiple times, which is “you should start something, even if you don’t totally believe in it, because even if it fails you’ll learn a lot and it won’t be a big deal.” I’ve really struggled with this sort of recommendation, because I personally can’t imagine working on something that I don’t believe in 100%. What do you think of the suggestion?

  2. Jay, I like your post. I think the pieces of advice you offer are pretty comprehensive. What are your thoughts on how failure is defined for others? After reading your post, I go back to the case on Yabbly and how some of the employees viewed a sale to Hammock as a sign of failure, whereas, others might not have shared the same perspective. When and/or how do you think entrepreneurs should define failure more broadly for the organization – employees and investors? Another example that comes to mind is Tom Leung with Yabbly and pivoting 8-9 times – although this may have been part of his plan all along, others, such as his investors, might view this differently – is there a step entrepreneurs should take, perhaps when they first launch the company, to define “failure” to set expectations with constituents? I’m curious to hear how you think about this.

  3. I agree, failure is so hot! The Lean Startup methodology is right in suggesting product feedback/development iterations to avoid wasting a lot of resources on producing a flawed product. However, failing fast, cheap, and often is the way to go!

Leave a comment