Founders: failure comes with the territory

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

Is making mistakes a necessity for success?

I would like to ponder whether making mistakes is actually a necessary part of the process of achieving whatever form of “success” we are striving for. I’d love your thoughts in the comments.

A topic revisited

Many, many people have discussed the idea of failing in order to succeed. The reason I’m bringing it up again is that I’ve found writing a blog post forces me to lay out the thoughts in my head in an organised way, and this then means that I think more clearly about the subject I write about. I also love to hear from others and I’ve learned a lot from comments in the past.

Striving for success

I think many of us are desperate to succeed and are striving for answers on how we can reach our goal more quickly. Whether the goal is financial, completing a sense of purpose or achieving freedom, we all want to reach “success”. Therefore, we really should take on board any techniques we can to get there.

Is the answer obvious?

Surely there is empirical evidence that the answer is obvious: making mistakes is not necessary in order to succeed. There are many examples out there of people “getting lucky”. What I’d like to pose is the question of whether making mistakes is in fact the safest way to reach success. Surely doing it any other way is like a lottery?

Characteristics of entrepreneurs

So is venturing out and starting work on something without expecting to make mistakes an unwise move?

Typical characteristics that may come to mind for what makes a successful entrepreneur is things such as not listening, sticking to a vision, knowing they will succeed:

"Entrepreneurs are non-conformists. Being non-conformists, they are innately driven to differentiate from the status quo. They dont listen when someone tells them something cannot be done." - Bill DAlessandro

If this is what we should be doing as fledgling entrepreneurs, does it leave room for learning?

Certainty and passion misplaced?

Maybe there is room for mistakes and learning as well as passion, drive and certainty.

One of the most important lessons I feel I have learned so far on my own journey of startups is what I choose to aim for. When I first started, I was set on making a specific idea succeed. I soon stumbled a couple of times and realised that setting my sights on a specific idea succeeding was a bad strategy. I now put all my effort in succeeding with a startup, not a specific idea. This realisation was really invigorating and has made me much more comfortable with pivoting.

A new type of entrepreneur?

If the reasoning is right so far, then is a new type of entrepreneur required? Perhaps someone who embraces change and treats all their ideas as hypotheses. Someone who goes out there and rigorously tests their hypotheses. This is the idea behind the Lean Startup and Customer Development and support for these ways of thinking is growing fast. Or is this what successful entrepreneurs have always done and we are only now uncovering the methods?

Aim to make mistakes?

So this brings us to my final thought. Should we actively aim to make mistakes? There are many people who say it is wise to embrace making mistakes:

"An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field." - Neils Bohr

"I embrace losing. It is how I learn." - Mark Suster

The whole idea of failure is also one of the main reasons that I aim to visit Silicon Valley in the future and experience the culture over there:

"I think embracing failure is one of the things that makes this country such a great place to do business in. In many parts of the world, if you fail once, you are done. People won’t touch you with a ten foot pole. But here in the US, it’s almost a badge of honor." - Fred Wilson

Is it even possible to succeed without enduring the experience of not getting something quite right?

Is it more productive to aim to make mistakes, or is it more productive to aim not to make mistakes but handle them and keep moving forward?

I’d love your thoughts.

Photo credit: Andy Roberts