Failure is Critical

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you, the humble reader, are quite accustomed to failure. Think back to the start of your day, from the moment you woke up until now. What’s the first failure you can think of? How about a less obvious and even smaller failure?

My answers to those questions: after waking up I habitually pull on a cord to open the blinds to get a look at the weather. This morning I didn’t have a firm grasp on the cord and as I pulled on it my hand slipped off the plastic knob which then went about whipping me in the face. That was a surprising failure. A more subtle failure was that I let my green tea steep too long, making it taste a bit like fish.

I reacted to both failures in a certain way. Whipping myself in the face made me feel stupid for a moment, but then I had an idea for an alarm clock that would open the blinds for me. Steeping my green tea too long inspired me to see if anyone made a timer that would lift the tea bag out when ready.

Rather than simply say to myself “iIll remember that for next time.”, I said “there’s a solution to that problem that I can either buy already or I could sell.”

These are trivial failures used mainly to help illustrate a point. Oversteeping tea is a lot different than overestimating the demand for your product.

Which leads me to core of what I’ve been wanting to suggest all along: good entrepreneurs know not only how turn failure into success, but how to increase their opportunities to learn from failure.

Let me pitch a business idea:

We’re going to head over to Germany and see if the record stores there will either give or sell their unsold stock for cheap, then we’ll load them up in the trunk of my car and try to sell them to people walking past.

That sounds like a very simple idea that is also destined for failure. But that’s exactly how Virgin Records started. While it’s hard to find a diary of everything that’s wrong with the idea, two things are clear: every failure Branson experienced was overcome, and even if he hadn’t been able to gain from his failures the initial financial costs to Branson were incredibly low. By design, he made it easy to fail.

The phrase “fail fast” is practically a cliche now, but the principles behind the phrase are what allowed Branson to iteratively fail, learn from mistakes made, grow as a result, and become one of the world’s richest men.

Speaking about his decision to start an airline, Branson said:

My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them…

I’d bet that the cost for Branson to travel from the UK to Germany to start Virgin Records is more than what it costs to incorporate, get basic accounting in place, and setup the services to start accepting payments from customers costs today.

Here are just a few services that can help you get started down a path of failing, succeeding, and repeating. Go rise above the unachievable!

Design
CrowdSpring
Sortfolio
99designs

Collaboration/Communication
Basecamp
Campfire
Skype
Grasshopper (disclaimer – I work for Grasshopper as Director of Grasshopper Labs)

Accounting/Billing
Freshbooks
LessAccounting
Chargify (disclaimer – Chargify started as a Grasshopper Labs project)

Comments and Reactions

  • http://blog.thoughtpick.com/ Beiruta

    Great read! Success could never be achieved without failure – one which could be learned from and utilized positively!

    Btw, great social media campaign. I really enjoyed it! – Maybe you could send us some grasshopper chocolates to try ;)

  • http://blog.thoughtpick.com Amer Kawar

    @go: Great post. I love the concept of “making it easy to fail”, that's spot on. If it's easy to fail, then you can “fail fast”, too, without thinking too much about the investment you've already put into your idea.

    All that makes perfect sense when it's at the concept stage, but I feel when I am in the process of *defining failure*, I face a dilemma. How much time should you give an idea/project? and what are the metrics that define success (or being on the right track)?

  • http://blog.thoughtpick.com/ Roba

    Thanks for the awesome post. This is definitely a whole new way of thinking of failure.

  • http://blog.thoughtpick.com M.Bamieh

    Great advice, failure is surely the best way to have the incentive to make things work better :) but you need to have some tenacity to appreciate failures.

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