There’s this theme that often gets repeated in the startup space. They say that to succeed you have to fail many times beforehand. This may be true to a certain extent, but I feel this narrative has been repeated enough that failure has become a badge of honor, not something to be avoided.
I agree there can be benefits to failing and making mistakes, and I’ve learned a lot from my numerous “failures”, but I also think not all failure is good. What’s important is being able to tell the difference between the productive failures, where you were a bit overly ambitious but learned important lessons, and wasteful failures, where you’re just throwing out ideas without thinking them through beforehand.
When we blur the lines between these two categories, lumping them together as one, we run the risk of what venture capitalist Geoff Lewis explains as celebrating an entirely unrealistic image of failure. It idealizes making mistakes in a way that unhealthily promotes failure.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Peter Thiel completely nailed it:
“I try to go against many of these bromides that people have in Silicon Valley and one of the ones that I really dislike is that somehow failure is this great learning experience or something like that. Every time a company fails it is not a beautiful working out of the Darwinian free market and it is not a fantastic educational experience for all involved. Every death is a tragedy and that is even true of deaths of companies. I don’t think that we should be setting people up for failure in all sorts of ways and that is something that should be avoid a lot.”
Very few entrepreneurs will ever see the success that the Jack Dorseys or Mark Zuckerbergs of the world find out of their failures. Adopting the philosophy that if only we take enough risks and fail enough times we too will be successful is inherently dangerous. Fear of failure is healthy and provides a much needed drive to make smart, well planned decisions.
Unfortunately, we are fighting against a glorified view of failing. The hype around failure has gotten so bad that there is even an event called FailCon, an annual conference that was started in 2009 to celebrate startup failure. This sort of attitude to failure desensitizes us to the true dangers of risky mistakes.
And that attitude is only solidified by entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban, who recently said:
“It doesn’t matter how many times you fail. Each time only makes you better, stronger, smarter and you only have to be right once. Just once. Then everyone calls you an overnight success and you feel lucky.”
That may have worked well for Cuban but for the majority of entrepreneurs, success isn’t inherently going to arise from an endless number of mistakes.
While I am confident that entrepreneurs and leaders must take risks and be ambitious in order to succeed, I worry that promoting failure as a cure-all will lead young entrepreneurs to make precarious bets that can ruin their businesses and even impact their lives. Not everyone can afford to make the kind of mistakes Silicon Valley praises.
I prefer the philosophy that encourages healthy and educated risk that may yield failure, but it will yield the productive kind of failure that propels you to your next big idea. We should strive to be ambitious, but not foolish.
So how can you tell the difference when embarking on a new project?
Be honest with yourself.
Make educated decisions based on long-term plans and projections. Take risks but only if they serve a greater purpose that you can easily identify. That means taking a step back and thinking to yourself, “How could this risk pan out? What are the possible outcomes? If I fail, will I at least gain valuable experience?
Before my company, AppLovin, became successful, we made bets that didn’t pan out. Initially, we tried several different apps and other things and some worked and some didn't. And if it didn't work, we didn't hold on to it -- we scrapped it fast and moved on.
Related: The 4 Reasons Why My Startup Failed
Stay lean and smart when taking risks.
Or as I always tell young entrepreneurs, mess up a lot but quickly and cheaply.
Shutterstock founder and CEO Jon Oringer recently spoke at The Next Web Conference about how he continues to infuse innovation in his company. During the talk he explained that the key to growing any project is staying scrappy. He advised limiting spending and resources as much as possible when creating a new product or service to diminish the amount of risk for the company. That’s the kind of philosophy that will foster success, as opposed to jumping for the sake of jumping.
Don’t spend an excessive amount of money on a fleeting idea. Try to start small and see what works before scaling to a wider audience. There’s no way to know for sure if a risk will pan out or if you will even learn from a failure. That’s why you need to be smart and cautious about the possibility of failure.
Don’t take risks for the sake of taking risks.
Don’t aim for failure in hopes of eventually becoming the next Zuckerberg. Do understand you might fail and if you do, try not to resonate with it for too long. Take time to learn from the failure, but then take your learnings and move on. Moping and lingering on your failures for too long can make them much bigger than they need to be.
Fear of failure is healthy. We shouldn’t all be running into every opportunity to fail. Instead we should aim to fail smart and infrequently.
Related: How I Overcome the Fear of Failure