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Why Startups Must Break the Failure Fetish and Focus on What Works

There is something curious going on in startup land: From learning to accept failure as part of the creative process we seem to have gone into overdrive and fetishized failure as something which is worthy of pursuit in and of itself. From FailCon to Fuckup Night—talking about failure seems to have become not only cool but also good business.

Here’s the thing with failure:

A . It sucks. I have yet to find someone who enjoys failing (and prefers it over succeeding).

B. You don’t learn all that much; and certainly not from the failures of others. There are a dozen ways you can solve a particular problem and a million ways you can fail to do so. Learning which one method didn’t work eliminates one out of 1,000,000 options. I’d rather take the shortcut and learn what worked.

C.  Failure’s causes are deeply personal. Failure (and success) is tied into your personal circumstances, the environment you were in, and a gazillion other factors. It is incredibly hard to generalize.

Rather than fixating on (particularly) the failure of others, I suggest you focus on learning what worked. Spend your energy on deeply understanding the underlying factors and first principles which led to success and figure out how you can leverage these lessons. And take failure for what it is: A necessary evil.

Don’t be afraid of failure but do your utmost best to minimize the impact of your failure (nothing good comes out of you driving your startup against the wall).

Rather than “fail fast, fail forward” how about “figure out what works and keep doing that”?

Of course, this means looking to your own project first. But there is plenty to learn from the successes of others too. In 2015, Bill Gross, the famed founder of startup factory Idea Lab, gave a talk on the TED stage titled, “The Single Biggest Reason Why Startups Succeed.”

After analyzing hundreds of companies, both out of his own portfolio as well as others, he found the leading factor was—timing.

From my own experience, I couldn’t agree more. With some caveats.

To start with, you need to build something which solves a real problem. It sounds trivial—but all too many companies just don’t solve an actual customer pain point or drive value for their users.

Secondly, you need something which is a big enough problem that it’s financially viable to solve. This usually goes hand in hand with the former point—yet sometimes you find actual problems worth solving, but they are so small or insignificant that they can’t sustain a business.

Thirdly, and this goes without saying, you need to execute and execute well.

Once these conditions are met, timing becomes vital. I have seen way too many companies being too early (a common challenge for anyone in the disruptive tech space) and many more being too late (launching the nth social network years after Facebook).

Sadly, timing is an elusive thing and hard to predict. Often the best you can do is to carefully look at the technology you are using and predict the development of its price/performance ratio—determining the point when it hits the “good enough”—line. In parallel, monitor customer behavior and preferences to figure out when the lines of technology and customer demand cross.

One thing is for sure—never underestimate timing as a primary success (or failure) factor!

Whether it’s figuring out the right problem, right timing, or right execution, pour more effort into what is actually working, rather than obsessing over failure for the sake of failure alone.

Image Credit: MJgraphics /