Who Wants to Read About Failure?
I’m a big fan of Quibb. A social sharing tool that lets you offer articles you’re reading to a hand selected community, I love knowing what inspires others. The Quibb community’s article shares add value to my own work, as many address concerns I share.
Last month, a Quibb user shared an article I haven’t forgotten. Published this past February, TechCrunch author Alexis Tsotsis wrote passionately about a previous interview subject. “I hope to be as big as Zappos” Ecomom CEO Jody Sherman once told her.
Tsotsis kept Jody as a contact on Skype. On February 1st, she logged on to find that he was “offline.” Jody had killed himself four days earlier, following reports of funds mismanagement behind the scenes. Tsotsis’ article, “’Killing It’ Isn’t Worth It,” discusses what she calls “the cult of startup success,” an environment that obsesses with perfection, eschews honesty, and (often) talks the talk at the expense of the walk.
"This super-human stoicism is at best superficial and myopic to the human component of so much of our business," Tsotsis writes. “The emotional travails of deciding what to build, how to build it, who to build it with, when, where, why, with whose money, etc. are harrowing. And it’s even worse when the investors are your friends and family versus nameless pension funds.
"Losing the savings of people you admire cuts deep. Yet aspiring to someone else’s idea of success should never be the ultimate goal or something you use to beat yourself down when your startup or career isn’t hockey-sticking or crushing it."
This article—an excellent assessment of startup culture—led to an equally interesting set of comments. Many bashed Tsotsis for “merely writing” about startups without having firsthand experience to draw from. Others blamed TechCrunch for aiding the problem, profiling “success stories” defined by arbitrary standards. Most interestingly, several asked why tech media focuses so heavily on success when the commentators—many of whom are entrepreneurs themselves—profess to have learned more from their failures.
“As a serial entrepreneur, I learned more from my mistakes than from my successes,” a reader named Paul Chen said. “So imagine what we can all learn together from interviews with the CEOs of unfortunate start-ups! For the ‘exiting’ entrepreneurs, these articles will also act as a forum to receive community support. The amount of comments for this article is a good indication of the potential.”
Paul’s comment—and several echoing sentiments—beg a question: Is there a market gap in tech news for stories about failure?
At The Next Women European Pitch event April 30, I asked this question to some fellow attendees. With such strong support for the TechCrunch article, I was confident that their answers would be similar. Not so.
“But how much can one really learn from failure?” one corporate consultant asked. “It’s success and metrics—doing deliverables, hitting growth targets—that entrepreneurs should know. What’s there to be learned from an idea that didn’t work?”
“I don’t know,” a startup employee replied. “Reading about failure doesn’t inspire me. I want to know who’s doing great things to be more like them. Why would I want to be like a failure?”
Maybe I wasn't clear enough. Or maybe the concept of failure outside the classroom is just another abstract. In my seven months working on AppBeat, I’ve read many enterprise articles that, contrary to Tsotsis’ thesis of startup success as a “cult,” not only address failure, but embrace it. Many entrepreneurs view failure as an integral role in the learning curve. They say there’s a reason why investors favour entrepreneurs on their second or third venture.
"Unless you have your eyes shut, even a complete failure of a business will teach you so much about yourself and running a successful company that you are bound to be better next time around,” Teddle co-founder Jules Coleman wrote for The Next Women earlier this month. “I make mistakes all the time. I try and learn from them and sometimes I don't even manage that!”
If failure’s perceived as a growth curve, I think we’d do well to discuss how short term “failure” often yields long term success. Far from keeping stories of failure self-contained—profiling “failures” that let professional setbacks outdo their personal integrity—I think there’s always something to be learned from discussing what doesn’t work. We all make mistakes; I don’t trust anyone who says they haven’t. And I have enormous respect for people who can admit when they’re been wrong. I intend for my future work, at AppBeat and The Next Web, to echo that ethos.
“I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” -Michael Jordan
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