Failure is something every startup founder, both successful and not, has to deal with. Coping with failure can be an incredibly difficult obstacle. Since I began working with Startup Grind in 2010 I have listened to or interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs. Several of them have grown their companies from the idea stage to unicorn status. A common denominator in all of these startup stories is fear of failure. Every founder has been afraid at some point that their company would go nowhere.
When asked about failure, well-known venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said, “fail” is a four-letter word that can haunt even the most promising of startups and entrepreneurs. He knows of what he speaks.
“Three months before we started Sun, we also started a company called Data Dump that failed. Nobody remembers failures,” he says.
In general, he’s right. But it’s not be completely true. Some people do remember failures: Those who did the failing. Many people struggle to celebrate victories and instead cling to their failures. People choose not to do things, not to take calculated risks, and not to chase their dreams because they're afraid of failure. But if nobody but you will remember those failures, why is it so scary?
This isn't high school PE
Children are afraid of failure for many reasons: They don't want to disappoint their parents, get made fun of by their friends, or get yelled at by their coach or teacher. We think we outgrow these needs to please as adults, but we don't. “People's fear of failure restricts them from doing most of what they can do,” says Khosla.
Sadly, this results in most people being restricted in what they think they're capable of--not what they're actually fully capable of. How many Mozarts, Shakespeares or Streeps has the world been robbed of because of fear of failure?
Bill Maris of Google Ventures recalls 2000 when Google was on the auction block. The sale was about to close, and Maris had bought everyone in the company a new BMW to celebrate. Word spread among employees. As the delivery trucks pulled in, the company slated to buy Google called and backed out--after all, the recession had just begun.
“I had to send the trucks away…I ruined the day,” recalls Maris. But the big question was, “Do we have what it takes to double down and do this for a few more years?” Obviously, fear of failure didn’t hold the team back, and the company that backed out has since been kicking itself.
Y Combinator is now one of the best known startup support organizations in the world, but there was a time when things looked bleak. According to founding partner Jessica Livingston, “We just kept moving forward...(even though) no reporter would ever call us back.” There will be days when only you believe in you and your business. “No one cared,” she said, but the secret was not caring what anyone else thought of their venture.
“Take seriously the prospect that you may fail,” recommends LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman. He's a big believer in passion projects. If it's a good use of your life, even if something “fails,” it only fails in one sense.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you will experience failure. Expect this. There isn’t one founder I know of that didn’t feel it on some level at some point. The key is to press forward and work hard until you find that success you are seeking.