Understanding Failure: Think Like Silicon Valley’s Best Entrepreneurs Do
Failure is a Big Topic for entrepreneurs. For some, failure can be a dominant thread in the storytelling and experience of their entrepreneurial journey. But failure is a myth. The Failure Myth comes in many forms — a failed company, a failed project, a failed idea. But there is a powerful way of approaching entrepreneurship in which failure is impossible. The world’s best entrepreneurs know that there is nothing that could happen through their attentive efforts that could be considered a failure. And when we realize this, we are freed up to do our best work and deliver the best possible value for ourselves. our families, and our investors.
Failure Is Not OK
Failure is not OK, no matter what people say. Failure is bandied about as a ‘celebrated feature’ of many careers. It is frequently talked about off-hand and lightly. In Silicon Valley we often hear how failure is not a stigma, but a badge of pride. The narrative is that acceptance and celebration of failure is one of the hallmark differences that allows Silicon Valley to be so successful. I both agree and disagree with this. At any level, outright failure is unacceptable, embarrassing, and painful. Failure represents an endpoint. A cessation of operations. A stopping point for a vision and a dream. Failure hurts more than anybody would like to admit. So let’s frame it more constructively and say that failure is more serious and costly than most of the stories will have you believe. At its core, a failure is an unrecoverable loss of time and energy. Often years of effort lost. Failures occur when effort is channeled and reaches an endpoint. But for the entrepreneur, does this really happen? The interesting thing about the entrepreneurs with the ‘failure’ badge is that they are still in motion. They are often the ones you want on your team because the failure bit is a myth. The reality is that they have just been testing the way the world works longer than others. You want them to work with you because they hopefully know more. In this case, Failure is better named for what it is: Experience.
Entrepreneurs Never Fail
We all seem to agree that ‘failure is a thing,’ so it seems logical to talk about it as if was real. But failure doesn’t actually exist. Failure is just a human concept and only occurs when we choose to conceptualize that our activity has reached an impassable endpoint. In physics, there are no endpoints. Same for entrepreneurs. Our intent to create moves from test to test, idea to idea, project to project. From business to business. From company to company. When your intent is larger than any decision, project, or company, a funny thing happens: failure disappears. There is a continuation, all driven by an intent larger than any single endeavor. Failure is just a concept created to represent ‘cessation of activity without an intended objective being reached.’ And if we are honest with ourselves, has that ever happened to us? Let’s look at it more closely.
Starting small, ideas within a business are never failures — not any more than walking through a forest is a failure if you can’t walk in a perfectly straight line from your starting point. Tree in the way? Does that mean that your original straight line hike failed? No — we adjust and walk around the obstacle. We are constantly adjusting. Feedback through observation, A/B testing, customer interviews, market tests, metrics and analysis of every type feed into the modern executive team and guide the next steps of a business. Running a specific bit of ad copy and putting it out in the market as a test campaign might deliver dismal results. This is not failure — it’s feedback. Feedback increases the value of the organization. We can choose to call it a “failed test”, but this is wrong. A/B tests NEVER FAIL. A test returns a result that makes you smarter. Like walking the forest at night, when you bump into something the feedback allows you adjust your path and make progress. Steps forward are progress. Bumping into a rock, tree, or obstacle is progress because now you have a better map of the terrain around and in front of you. Failure? No way.
Chunking up to a larger scale, a project or product can be treated the same. Closing down a product line? What you learn along the way changes the company and its approach. Spinning off a line of business to focus on core competency is a success. Pulling resources from lines of business that don’t deliver adequate revenue is a successful move that can strengthen the business. There are no straight lines. Reality is ‘messy’ and defies our vision of direct movement from A to B.
Closing down a startup or leaving a company can be a success. I have built businesses, projects, startups, partnerships that have not directly delivered cash or an exit but were all contributory to the successes that followed. Necessary. Beautiful in the hard and easy of it. They are all part of the path and the eventual value creation that followed. A startup that delivers a product that never finds a home in the market is a success for the entrepreneur that defines his or her journey as reaching through that experience and informing the next.
A Matter of Perspective
We find the biggest personal risks this way: As an entrepreneur, do you put yourself ‘inside’ the thing you have built? Or is the thing you build inside you? This is the most significant distinction when considering how we interpret the outcomes of our actions.
When an entrepreneur creates a thought structure to describe their business, if they conceive it as ‘bigger than them’, as something that they are inside of, they can dramatize the damage that would occur if it does not work out as they expect. Often their business is experienced like a ship that they built and are now inside of and dependent on. And if rough seas sink the boat with you in it, you can imagine you are in the worst kind of difficulty. This perspective tricks us unto perceiving damage to the business as an existential risk. “If the ship sinks, we are going down with it.”
But there is another way.
When we conceive of our companies not as a ship we are aboard, but as a carefully constructed boat that we make and hold with our hands and push forward into the water to see what happens, risk seems completely different. If your creation sinks, you are disappointed but quickly pull it out of the water and get to building the next version. Same thing with a business. If you imagine yourself as inside your startup, failure is unthinkable. When a startup is a creation that you hold and push forward, it can change and move, and you are not threatened existentially. The startup that closes down, seen from an encompassing viewpoint considers it as simply a step in the journey.
Let’s imagine a trip through a dense forest when you approach a deep, quickly flowing stream. You make several attempts to cross, and end up getting wet and not through to the other side. The third try is the charm, and you are across and continue your journey. The first attempts were successful because while they did not get you across, they taught you how to cross streams .
Everything hard and easy is simply part of the journey. It’s just like the late Wayne Dyer pointed out over 2 decades ago. I can still hear Wayne’s voice on the worn bootlegged cassette tape that I listened to hundreds of times as a young entrepreneur in the 1990’s. He said that “Success is not about arriving. Successful people bring success to everything they do.” And its true — success is a state of being. It is about being larger than your outcomes. It is about creation and movement, taking any event as feedback and channeling it into the next step and the next step of an intent to create value. It is a highly personal purpose that reaches out into the future, that is flexible and works its way around, through, and beyond obstacles. Does a hiker create a narrative that says “I went down the trail, and found rocks and trees in the way, so I stopped hiking?”
At some point, all of us can realize that failure only happens when the we mistake feedback as being the end of the road. This is a choice, and one that we never need to make.
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