657-admin - 07.09.18

The rise (and fall) of The Cult of Failure

The Guardian: They didn’t fail, they just didn’t come in first

We just came across a great article by Adrain Daub of The Guardian about how, in the world of tech startups, “messing up is practically a religion”.

Daub has spoken to the people who make a living on other companies’ messups – and they’re enough of those to go around. Silicon Valley’s failure industry “runs on discretion and convenient amnesia” and has built a certain cult of failure, where killing your company seems mostly to be about luck, bad timing and the wrong blend of personalities:

Silicon Valley thinks it has failure figured out. Even beyond the cliched embrace of “failing better”, a tolerance for things not going quite right is baked into the tech industry. People take jobs and lose them, and go on to a new job. People create products that no one likes, and go on to create another product. People back companies that get investigated by the SEC, and go on to back other companies. They can even lie on behalf of a company like Theranos without any taint whatsoever. In Silicon Valley, it seems, there is no such thing as negative experience.

Daub observes that this cult runs hand in hand with Silicon Valley’s obsession with youth (“If a founder fails, it is a sign of vigor”) and how failing “seems to carry opposite meanings depending on who does it”:

If a traditional brick-and-mortar business hemorrhages money as unregulated digital competition moves in, then that’s just a sign that brick-and-mortar deserves to die. By contrast, if a disruptive new economy startup loses money by the billions, it’s a sign of how revolutionary and bold they are.

Harvard Business Review: Don’t celebrate failure

The failure cult has spread to governement, too. Policy makers from the government of Singapore to the European Union and The U.S. have advocated “embracing failure” to encourage entrepreneurship. (“After all, wasn’t it the fearlessness of America’s great pioneers—their willingness to stumble during their quest—that led them to succeed against all odds?”). However, according to Daniel Isenberg, who wrote about the failure cult phenomenon several years ago (2011) in Harvard Business Review,

“Embracing failure” to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided. Failure should not be celebrated. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.

Don’t bring out the champagne when an entrepreneur fails, Isenberg suggests, offering advice on what governments should do in stead:

  • Don’t think a low failure rate is a sign that the policy is working. Failures come early, success takes time. So accept that failure is a part of doing business.
  • Remove structural obstacles to reduce the risks of a failed venture. Laws that increase the costs of failure stifle engagement from new players, “much as a blocked chimney prevents oxygen from feeding the flames”.
  • Turn failure into fodder. Train entrepreneurs to fail small, fast and cheaply.

Medium: Take the hit. Get up.

This wisdom has not at all stopped companies from deliberately seeking out those whose track records reflects both failure and success. And from quoting Edison’s ‘I didn’t fail; it took 1000 steps’ light bulb story.

In an article on Medium, Paul Smith, co-founder and CEO at Ricochet, says that “a failing startup can cause tears and leave scars, and shouldn’t be celebrated with backslapping circlejerks.”:

 “Celebrating failure” has somehow become an acceptable outcome for a tech startup, to the point that failing often seems to be afforded as much respect as succeeding. [However,] There’s a difference between saying failure is probable, and promoting it as acceptable.

He says going out of business should never sit easy with a founder:

A startup that fails may be a common occurrence, but founders should never feel comfortable with the possibility, however likely the statistics state it is. The risk of going bust, people losing their jobs and others losing their money s

This isn’t to say startups should be risk-averse — for the sake of innovation:

We should fear it, because failure bloodies our nose and breaks our bones — but we should always, always pick ourselves up. When we do, we’ll stand taller and we’ll walk further, and that’s truly worthy of celebration.