Transforming Failure Into Success
Despite the common refrain in startups to fail faster, I have found that many founders and executives have an intense fear of failure. There are certainly some very good reasons for this. It’s natural to feel embarrassed when we fail, and the fear that we’ll be penalized or even fired for a big failure may make us particularly anxious.
Although failure can be daunting, it is rarely fatal. In fact, it is something that we should expect and anticipate. The most successful startups can recognize small failures when they occur, understand where they are occurring, and quickly turn them around before they become major problems.
The lesson is clear: success depends on learning from your failures and moving forward. Let’s consider what you can do to transform your failures into successes.
Look at Every Opportunity Through Many Lenses
In our work with startups, we have observed a variety of failure modes. One of the most common is when a founder takes on the responsibility of assessing an opportunity by themself, without receiving any input from or properly vetting it with the team. That is a mistake. Before you commit to a new opportunity, have the members of your team review it through their distinct lenses—tapping into the unique experience and strengths of each member. When you assemble a diverse team of people with varied backgrounds and put them to work on an opportunity, they’ll almost always come up with the right solution.
Take the First Step
Many founders want to plan every step along the way—from seed stage to Series C and beyond—and they become paralyzed when they discover that it’s just not possible to do that. Not acting is a much greater risk to your business than acting, failing, and learning. Avoid the trap of trying to plan to perfection every step of the way for the next five years by taking the first step. Have a destination in mind, a vision for the destination, and the conviction that the journey is worthwhile. Then take the first step.
Be Intellectually Honest
As venture capitalists, we often hear first-time founders say, “My company is amazing—everything about it is great and there are no clouds on the horizon.” Optimism is an essential component in every successful founder’s DNA—without a strong belief in your abilities, and in your team and company, you can’t succeed. But while the most successful founders exude optimism, they are also well aware of reality, and the line between the two. When something is not going well, is not going according to plan, or is not as expected, be honest about it and take action accordingly.
Sometimes, your company may not be performing as well as it could be, and you need to make a change to resolve the problem. For example, you might not have the right person in a key position. Perhaps your VP of Sales is having difficulty building a high-performing team, or a product manager’s bad behavior has engineering up in arms. Years ago, when I worked at Hewlett-Packard, former CEO Meg Whitman once shared with me in hindsight that she never felt she had let someone go too early. If there’s a problem in your organization, a lack of speed in resolving it can be your downfall.
Tolerate Small Failures
As we all know, nothing is perfect—there will always be mistakes, there will always be failures. But despite that fact, you can’t allow the fear of failure to impede your progress, or the progress of your team and organization. Anticipate failure and then work through it. Build tolerance for small failures into your organization—make it a place that is safe for your people to fail. If you don’t, they will hide their failures from you, or even worse, they’ll always play it safe. If you’re not having small failures, then you’re not taking enough risk.