Failure is so hot in startup land that it even has it's own conference (as well as a series of memorably titled local meet-ups). Why this obsession with celebrating and dissecting failure?

It's not that founders are masochists, of course, but the startup scene is permeated with a belief that risk taking is required for significant success and that leaps and gambles necessarily breed failure. Stumbles are not only unavoidable, the standard thinking goes, but viewed in the right light, they can actually be beneficial--failure, according to the conventional wisdom, is an amazing educator and a shortcut to learning essential lessons for startup success.

While very few would argue that you can be truly innovative without courting failure, the second part of this startup dogma is less universally agreed on. It's certainly possible and even desirable to learn something when you fail (coming out no wiser at all clearly benefits no one). But some skeptics maintain that maybe we've all taken the celebration of the educational benefits of failure too far.

The limited utility of failure

Jason Fried, author and co-founder of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), is one classic proponent of this less cheerful view of failure. "I don't understand the cultural fascination with failure's being the source of great lessons to be learned. What did you learn? You learned what didn't work. Now you won't make the same mistake twice, but you're just as likely to make a different mistake next time. You might know what won't work, but you still don't know what will work. That's not much of a lesson," he has written.

Instead of obsessively plumbing your mistakes for lessons, he advocates paying much more attention to what is working for you. "Put most of your energy into studying your successes," he advises. "What have you done right? What worked? Why did it work? How you can repeat it?"

A practical example

Does Fried's wisdom work in practice? Yup, according to a recent post on the blog of email marketing startup Vero. The company has been experimenting with following Fried's advice, spending more energy on replicating successes than pondering failures. And according to writer Jimmy Daly, it's been working.

"We're making some changes to our blog," Daly reports. "We're focusing on punchy, actionable posts with lots of examples. When we sit down to write a post, the goal is to GTTFP (get to the f'ing point!)." And according to the company's analytics, the new approach is working. "So we are going to head that direction and see if we can double down on that success. It's not profound but it makes sense. Do more of what people like," concludes Daly sensibly.

While Daly stresses that Vero isn't throwing the baby out with the bathwater--failure is still an expected byproduct of creativity--his team is vowing to spend more time mining their successes rather than their failures for insights going forward.

Should you join him?

Published on: Nov 26, 2014