Founders: failure comes with the territory

Written on 31st July, 2011
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A couple of things have happened this week that made me think a little about what failure means for startup founders.

Firstly, one of my favorite startups Sprouter has announced that it is closing its doors. I’ve been closely following Sprouter for at least a year, and I’ve also been lucky enough to be featured in their weekly newsletter a couple of times. It is sad to see it close, especially since I have seen how much effort Sarah and Erin have put in amongst others. That said, I can see that this will be a launchpad for future success.

Secondly, Nick Barker who’s a great friend of mine and a fellow british startup founder reached out to me to ask if I will go back to Nottingham some time to speak about overcoming failure. We had a brief conversation about how "celebrating failures" is a slightly alien concept in the UK and how the difficult subject must be talked about.

Failure comes with the territory

In the recent TNW Sessions featuring Sarah Prevette of Sprouter, Sarah said that failure comes with the territory. Similarly, Dan Martell said:

"No one I know ever came out of the gate with a win. It usually always got preceded with a failure, or two."

When I graduated from University in 2009, I knew I wanted to create a startup. I had an idea, so I got building straight away and I specifically found work which would allow me to spend a significant amount of time building the startup.

I had a co-founder and over the course of 1.5 years I had 4 other people involved. These are all people who in one way or another I feel I have let down, but we all knew that potential failure came with the territory.

I am not sure whether it helps for people to know that failure is part of the journey, but with hindsight I can see that it is definitely the case.

Learning from failure

Dan Martell recently wrote a post on Maple Butter about the end of Sprouter and the following words really stood out for me:

"we sometimes need to learn those lessons the hard way to lay the foundation for the next venture"

As someone who has a previous startup which didn’t go as well as I had hoped, I can relate to this on many levels.

The startup did not meet expectations, but it was the best 1.5 years of learning I have ever had. I learned the importance of building something people really want, about relationships and about not holding back with shipping a product and charging for it.

Sarah Prevette opened up about things she has learned from running Sprouter. She said that Sprouter was a great example of being a “victim of free”. Some of the things Sarah has taken away from her experience are great learning points:

"I would advise anybody to monetize right from the get-go. Don’t be afraid to charge. It is a much more difficult thing to discover a business model than it is to sell your product."

Failure puts you in a better position to succeed

I can absolutely say that if I hadn’t spent 1.5 years working on a startup which did not succeed, there is no way I could have had some early success with Buffer as quickly as I did.

This is the mindset which Nick and I agreed was severely lacking in the UK. It seems that in the UK and perhaps other places failure is seen as a sign that you will never succeed. A “well done for trying, now quit the band and get a proper job” response doesn’t seem far from the norm. I honestly think the attitude is shifting, but now that I am in Silicon Valley I can see this particular aspect is one of the key differences. This is a reason location could matter for your startup.

Overall, I do not regret trying with my first startup, and I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today with Buffer if I hadn’t gone through that learning. Reading about the experiences of other startup founders I think there is great reason to celebrate failures.

Have you had an experience of failure? Do you think failures should be celebrated? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: hobvias sudoneighm