What’s better than a noble, post-crisis apology? Not needing to apologize in the first place. The team behind Fyre Festival -- a Coachella-like music event in the Bahamas -- learned this truth first-hand last weekend.
Festival-goers paid $500 to $12,000 for what was billed as fancy lifestyle getaway on a remote island paradise. What they saw on arrival was a far cry from the “rare luxuries” promised online, and included a gravely unfinished site, flimsy tents and sparse cheese sandwiches served on styrofoam take-out containers.
It was an inauspicious end to an event that never began -- one promoted as a way to unplug with supermodels, yachts and private planes planned by rapper Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, the 25-year-old CEO of Magnises, an exclusive social network for Millennials.
As apologies go, the one Fyre Festival issued Saturday was a good one. It explained how the event went sideways, offering important details like how the team built an instant city on a remote island without appropriate water or waste management. The team acknowledged it was overwhelmed and offered attendees refunds and VIP passes to a new stateside festival planned for next year. “This is an unacceptable guest experience and the Fyre team takes full responsibility for the issues that occurred.”
Still, apologies have their limits. The brand damage is extensive. Those who didn’t know about the debut event likely read about it in news reports which described it as a “fiasco” or compared it to The Hunger Games. And apologies alone can’t undo the trust broken by festival planners.
And that’s to say nothing of the potential legal issues. One lawsuit has already be levied against the company today with a plaintiff seeking $5 million in damages, alleging breach of contract as well as fraud. According to Variety, the suit seeks class action status. ABC News reported that the festival organizers allegedly did not pay customs duty taxes on supplies that were imported for the event.
Of course, such crises don’t come without warning. One talent producer hired by Fyre to help with organizing travel and event logistics said problems were obvious even two months ago. She shared an account of her experience with The Cut explaining that in March, vendors, transportation and stages had not been finalized despite the fact the event was just weeks away.
The experts’ advice at the time was to pull up stakes, says Gordon. “The best idea, they said, would be to roll everyone’s tickets over to 2018 and start planning for the next year immediately.”
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As you know, this didn’t happen. Instead, as Gordon tells it, “A guy from the marketing team said, ‘Let’s just do it and be legends, man.’”
A separate statement McFarland posted on Rolling Stone Friday takes the chance to talk about what he admits is one of the “toughest days” in his life. In it, the Magnises founder describes himself as a computer programmer fueled by a love of pushing limits. He makes a surprising friend -- rapper Ja Rule -- and the two take flying lessons. When their plane runs out of gas they discover a remote island and the idea for Fyre is born. McFarland sees a chance to combine his love for music and with his love for the ocean.
Even in this story’s start, the warning signs seem clear. The team launches the marketing first, before truly understanding what the festival would need, either for talent or infrastructure. And then almost immediately, the event "takes on a life of its own." It’s not until the team sits down to “actually make the music festival,” he writes, that a lot of “reality and roadblocks hit.”
It’s a statement that reads like the typical startup origin story -- the founder who pushes for the impossible and finds viral success. But the remarks -- told to a Rolling Stone reporter -- stand out in part because they mostly grapple with the struggles McFarland and his team had, not with the harsh reality his customers faced. It’s still more about pushing limits than delivering a product.
Still, McFarland recognizes his personal blind spots, which isn’t easy. He’s straightforward about what he and his team have learned, which is essential. He admits they were naive, for instance. But it’s important for entrepreneurs to understand that while admitting naivete is cathartic, it’s not always that useful. After all, most entrepreneurs are naive at some point. The trick, for all founders, is learning how to balance not knowing with expertise and planning.
The resources Fyre had missed -- time and expertise -- weren’t lacking, they just weren’t properly tapped. According to Gordon’s account, Fyre did call in experts but those experts’ warnings weren’t heeded. And the Fyre team might have imagined there’d be a storm or that a pipe might break -- and created contingency plans.
Fyre’s struggles remind us that part of the challenge in entrepreneurship is toggling between seeking the impossible and setting limits. For the sake of their brand, their team and their customers, companies need to know when to cut their losses.
If a 2017 event was difficult, a 2018 event will be even harder. It will need to go above and beyond to re-earn attendee trust. In the meantime, founders of all stripes would do well to remember that a boring success beats an exciting fiasco any day. And while all customers appreciate a well-written apology, they’re even more interested in getting what you promised.
Fyre Festival did not respond to a request for comment.