Why Acceptance Of Failure Is Critical To Startup Success

Source | INC42 : By Mark Suster

I talk about failure a lot because I think it can be tremendously instructive and I think that success without failure often masks underlying lessons.

I even prefer to fund entrepreneurs who have experience some level of set-backs in their careers or startups because I think it brings a humility to decision-making that I find healthy. I have experienced many first-time entrepreneurs with too much hubris if fund-raising came easily and press was fawning and employees joined in droves and customer adoption has been rapid.

When I hear the realism that comes from founders with setback it elicits an understanding of what it takes to be successful at a startup that frankly can’t exist unless you’ve walked in those shoes before. It is these stories that helps me bond more with the team because I’ve personally experienced just about every kind of setback at my first startup:

  • Raising too much capital, too quickly & at too high of valuations
  • Hiring too quickly and too senior
  • Building too much functionality before market validation
  • Charging too much, keeping prices too high
  • Seeking too much press before we were ready for it
  • Being too driven by quarterly revenue targets that led me to make bad strategic decisions about products, customers and staff levels
  • Spending too much time on inorganic growth (M&A)
  • Expanding too rapidly to new geographies (I didn’t want competitors to become entrenched)

I could write my blog alone on the mistakes I made.

But even more important than personal lessons of failure, I believe acceptance of failure at a societal level is one of the key ingredients that allows the technology startup industry in the US to flourish. I say this as somebody who has lived in 6 countries and worked in 9 — having lived abroad for 11 years of my work life.

In my experience the US loves the narrative of the come back. We champion a storyline about an underdog who failed many times but through grit and determination have risen above the odds. One of our greatest presidents — Abraham Lincoln — lived a lifetimes of failure and setbacks before being elected as president (1). One of our greatest technology leaders (Steve Jobs) had humiliating business failure before coming back to build the most successful tech come-back of our times.

Silicon Valley itself was built on the sciences with a foundation of trial-and-error and then improving the model and trying again. I believe this scientific method and trial-and-error approach is one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable strengths.

This came to mind a couple of years ago when I had the chance to sit down with the president of South Korea and she asked a small gathering of 19 tech & business leaders for opinions about how to make the Korean economy more “creative.” The backdrop explained was that it was viewed that Korea has been tremendously successful at copying and perfecting other people’s technologies but in order to compete more effective in the future had to be more creative.

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