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.