Fail early. Fail fast.

A team of Stanford students was told: create value using rubber bands. Yes, rubber bands.

So, they had a brilliant idea. They thought: “Let’s create a Wishing Tree, a tree from which students can hang their wish-notes using rubber bands. We’ll catalyze love and peace. People will group together under the tree, linking arms, and singing in three part harmony.” (Ok, maybe their vision didn’t extend quite that far.)

It didn’t work.

But, rather than roll over and play dead on their assignment, the team put together a video demonstrating the value they gained from their failure. Their key lesson? Fail early. Fail fast.

It sums up so much: that failure is part of the entrepreneurial process; that it’s better to let go of an approach that is not working ; that you should take what you have learned, take your time and your energy, and apply yourself to a new strategy. Or the next venture.

Why is failing the end of the world?

I used to rollerblade. (I was living in Southern California, where you have to rollerblade to obtain residency status. Really. Check the laws.) Straight lines didn’t interest me much; I used to love to crank up my Sony walkman and whip around parking lots at midnight, tackling jumps best left to fourteen-year-old boys. And I fell. A lot.

But you know, I expected to fall, and prepared for it – huge kneepads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet. I looked a bit like a short Terminator. But that didn’t bother me. In fact, over time I developed a subtle contempt for the roller-beauties, tottering around in their bikinis and micro-shorts, not a pad to be found on them. My motto became, “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying.”

It’s weird, isn’t it, how we’re perfectly willing to accept that learning to do a double-twist over a park bench might take a bit of falling; but we expect that rolling out a new product, by a new team, in a new market, should work according to plan. And that if it doesn’t work…well, it’s a failure that damns.

What is failure, anyway?

“Entrepreneurship is the art of surviving until you succeed.” Manish Sabharwal, one of the founders and Chairman of TeamLease, India’s largest temporary staffing company, gave me that definition.

We were chatting about failure. Now, I don’t know how many of you know Manish, but anyone who does would probably vote him “Least Likely To Be Associated With Failure.” Seriously, this is one sharp guy.

But Manish told me the story of his first company – how they had to completely change the business three times before getting something that worked. Luckily they were able to raise funds and keep the ball rolling. If they hadn’t, Manish said, they would have taken what they had learned and started fresh. But, he said, he didn’t consider even that alternative to be a failure.

“So,” I asked him, “if that would not constitute failure, then what would?”

“Failure,” Manish replied, “Is when you don’t keep the faith.”

Yes, it sucks. But it doesn’t kill you.

I know. I’ve been there. I had to close down one of my companies. It was a horrible experience. I learned things like: don’t expect your venture capitalists to remain sane. And, no, you really don’t have 3 months of cash left, in fact, you are already out of cash – because closing a company costs money. And I learned that your team will work for free, and even bring in blueberry muffins.

There were other lessons as well, about having a proper business model before taking venture capital (which I knew, but ignored). And about who I am.

A lot of entrepreneurs are used to success – entries to good schools, top positions in clubs, classes or companies. We think of ourselves as those who beat the odds. It was difficult to incorporate the failure into my view of myself. It was hard to put together my resume with the company failure at the top. (I briefly considered arranging work experience alphabetically rather than chronologically.)

But it does get better. I did crawl out from under my desk. I have been able to put the experience into perspective. And yes, the lessons have indeed stood me in very good stead.

Last week I ran into a young entrepreneur who recently closed his startup. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the special relationship between entrepreneurs and failure.

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10 Comments

Filed under Failure, Tips for entrepreneurs

10 responses to “Fail early. Fail fast.

  1. Vinod Shastri

    Excellent!

  2. Amit Somani

    In the context of India, even if you (the individual entrepreneur) understand that you have to fail to succeed, society is not accepting of failure that easily. Hence the classic high achievers tend not to assume enough risk – i.e. they don’t fail enough and hence don’t push the envelope. So, we have to help folks “fail” (equivalent to teaching them how to fall with your rollerblade analogy).

  3. Lara Druyan

    Laura, this is the most important thing of all. Fail as early as possible when starting something new. If you fail early, you may have enough funding, time and other resources to make the right turn to make your business successful. That’s why it’s critical to set stakes in the ground early and to be very, very focused. The more focused you are, the more likely you are to figure out if you have succeeded or failed early in the game. The more diffuse you are, the more likely it is that you won’t see your failure early enough.

  4. Asgar

    Food for thought indeed! Nobody likes to fail, but failing becomes so much more of a learning experience when one realizes that success is also the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. Entrepreneurship does teach, that, failure isn’t a stigma, infact, I would like to believe it is the stripe on the sleeve. You are never a loser until you quit trying.

  5. Hey Laura,
    Lovely article! Strikes a chord!
    Taking the entrepreneurial plunge has humbled me a lot. Its taught me phenomenal stuff about myself, business and money.
    Haven’t quite tasted success yet, but at 24 and a year and half of failure and learning, looks like I am on the right track. 🙂

    What I love about this article is the fact that it has the power to create a paradigm shift in the reader’s mind. And if we are able to create a culture in which people don’t look down upon failure, there would be very little pressure for entrepreneurs to “loose faith” and just give up.

  6. I believe that failure is critical to the serial entreprenuer. Dealing with it is the first step to dealing with a life outside the safe corporate world. It was an inspirational article and the title itself showed the importance of failing early on in life. Somewhere its easier to come to terms and treat it as a learning experience. Great work!!

  7. ELC

    A well researched site, I’ll link to it from my site thanks

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