On Failure

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Essays

Financial economist and famed venture capitalist Bill Janeway says, of the conditions for innovation: “economic growth has been driven by successive processes of trial and error and error and error.” Failure is core to the innovation economy. It is taken as an article of faith in Silicon Valley vocabulary to “fail fast, fail often”. 

A successful brainstorming exercise can be described as a process of throwing many ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks; inherent in that is an assumption that most ideas won’t stick. Venture capital funds invest in a large quantity of companies with the expectation that a substantive percentage of them will go bankrupt. To this point, there would be no Amazon, and perhaps no Google, without the dot-com bubble. Failure is a key ingredient of innovation. But something doesn’t add up.

I have failed numerous times in my career in technology. Dropping out of college was less of a triumphant moment, more of a shameful one. Shutting down a company was a statistic for the Kauffman Foundation, but resulted in broken friendships, lost jobs, and intimidating debts. Even the successes––raising millions of venture capital dollars, delighting tens of thousands of customers, growing our businesses––were chock full of insecurity, financial difficulty, and in some cases physical pain. What made it odd, most of all, was that it was very hard to admit to having failed. Everyone around me was “killing it’ and their businesses were “going viral” and their companies were “crushing it”. All the while, the panelists and speakers were talking about celebrating failure, and how important that is.

Failure is not uncommon, either: the statistics on mass incarceration, suicide rates at colleges, student debt default rates in the United States are ample evidence of this. Failure is necessary for innovation, but failure is not good. Celebrating failure, and claiming it as gospel, does a disservice to those who know it all too well; it leaves out those who are marginalized, underrepresented, and often expected to fail. We need a reframing of the conversation. We need to tell our students, our entrepreneurs, our future innovators: failure is not good. But failure is okay. And to that point, we need to make failure okay.

Silicon Valley doesn’t have a culture of failure, but of failure in the context of success. If you fail once, you haven’t failed forever. If you fail once, you can still succeed ultimately. This is an important nuance, and one that I know intimately. In the moments where I failed, my family, my peers, my investors, my bosses, and my employees, retained a conviction that things would work out eventually. In this way, the financial support, the emotional and psychological support, and the relentless optimism of Silicon Valley is the key ingredient to our innovative success. In that context, the “error, and error, and error” part of the “trial and error” is underwritten by the whole community. And those are the moments where we make things great.

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