Failure sucks. Let’s not sugarcoat it. No one goes into business, pours their heart (and money) into a startup, and hopes it will fail. But failure is common enough. The statistics on it are immaterial (and I’m too lazy to look them up right now) — suffice it to say, lots of startups fail. And even more of them don’t live up to expectations (even if they survive to fight another day.) It’s tough. And failure sucks.
I’ve failed before. And written about it as well. More importantly, and much more challenging than simply writing about failure, is making sure the lessons learned stay with me. It’s easy to pay lip service to failure — but truly turning a negative into a positive is something different. I don’t always succeed. Repeating the same mistakes twice is easier than you might think.
Wearing Failure on Your Sleeve
Phil Chrun recently wrote an amazing blog post: Deconstructing a Struggling Startup: MyCarpoolStation.com. Everyone should read it. (Then come back, OK?)
Phil’s post is more open and honest than most I’ve seen on failure. He lays it all out there for the world to see. He describes in detail his thinking behind the startup and where he (and the team) went wrong. And, he talks about ways he’d do things differently in the future, be it with MyCarpoolStation or a future endeavor. Rest assured, I have no doubt in my mind that Phil Chrun will start a new company someday. And he’s a better entrepreneur for having gone through a tough startup situation.
How Do We Handle Failure?
The idea of “learning from one’s mistakes” is nothing new. What’s interesting is how everyone else responds to failure. It’s often said that one reason startup communities in Silicon Valley and Boston succeed is because failure is accepted. Founders wear failure as a badge of honor. It’s a right of passage.
Failure is inevitable. In some respects it is a right of passage (although not a necessity for success!) I’m not quite sure failure should be a badge of honor — after all, you still failed…
But, the key point is this: failure is accepted.
What about in other places? I’d like to think we’re building a very strong startup ecosystem in Montreal, but that doesn’t mean every new startup will succeed. Far from it. And what happens when the failures start mounting? Will the rest of us turn our noses? Will we shake our heads? Will we cast blame on those that failed and say, “I knew that was going to happen.” Blech.
I suspect all of those things will happen. And it’s a shame. If startup communities cannot accept and embrace failure as a fact of life (and something that can make everyone stronger) then we won’t see a lot of successful startups. First-time entrepreneurs that fail won’t try again. Upcoming entrepreneurs that are thinking about starting companies will hesitate for fear of failing. A successful startup ecosystem needs plenty of new recruits jumping on the startup train and plenty of grizzled veterans getting back in the ring.
So What Should We Do?
In younger, more fragile startup communities (and I’d put Montreal in that category), handling failure is a challenge and must be done carefully. Certainly, some failures warrant severe criticism: The startup world (I’m not speaking exclusively about Montreal!) is fraught with cases of outright stupidity, stealing, gross negligence, incompetence and so forth. And don’t get me started on founders that are pulling the wool over the eyes of investors, customers, etc. Or CEOs in it only for themselves. Yes, there’s a lot of crap. And here’s hoping it all fails. But when I think about Phil (and others like Martin Dufort with Kakiloc), it’s clear these guys are honest dreamers, that tried to make a go of something they truly believed in.
- Don’t look down on those who fail. A startup community gains nothing by looking down on those that failed. At least they tried. Those entrepreneurs took a risk and put themselves out there. That’s more than can be said of most people.
- Don’t pity those who fail. No one died (hopefully) and these guys are fighters. They’re warriors of the startup world, they don’t need your pity, they need your support.
- Don’t judge those who fail. Nothing is gained by judging entrepreneurs that have failed. You increase the fear of failure (for everyone) and clearly send the message, “Failure is not acceptable.”
- Don’t forget those who fail. I’m not suggesting we put failed entrepreneurs on a pedestal, but they’ve gone through a lot and that experience is of value. There’s no reason these entrepreneurs shouldn’t continue to participate in the community, mentor potential entrepreneurs, etc.
Failure sucks. You gain nothing by belittling failure or pretending it’s not serious. It is serious, and it’s bloody hard to deal with. But the challenge comes with accepting it as a fact of startup life. And how entrepreneurs who have failed are handled and treated in your startup community will have a huge impact on the success of that community.
A strong startup ecosystem cannot be built on fear of failure. And in many startup communities, we need to do a lot more to alleviate that fear, so more people are encouraged to enter the startup world.