Walk around any tech company's office today and you're likely to see a framed quote, poster, or mural about failure. Creating a culture where it's not only okay for employees to fail, but where they're encouraged to, has become a competitive advantage for companies for a few reasons. Employees are more likely to try something bold, innovative, and new when they aren't afraid it'll cost them their job. "One of the reasons people join a tech company is to explore the possibility of starting a company themselves, so you have to get people comfortable with great risks, great reward, and indeed great failure if you want to attract top employees."
But then something changes. As companies grow and scale, there's a natural bend toward incrementalism and playing it safe. "Fail fast, learn faster" is harder to do in practice when the stakes get high. Instead of upsetting the applecart, people default to complacency; it's easier to make small improvements, to fit in versus stand out, and to just do the job you were given. The problem with that is that's how great companies become mediocre.
Embracing failure has always been embedded in our culture at HubSpot. The HubSpot Culture Code says "Better to try and sometimes fail than to sit tight...and fail for sure." But what that looks like in practice has scaled alongside our business. I joined HubSpot when we were just opening our first global office in Dublin (we now have seven total) and when everything from our job titles to our kitchen snacks oozed "start-up." Taking big risks wasn't scary because most of our successes at the time were results of risks-in-progress.
But as we grew and approached an IPO in 2014, you could sense a shift. Employees were nervous our culture would change once we went public. They were nervous we would no longer be able to walk the walk on autonomy, radical transparency, and innovation. They were worried we would slow down. And while we might welcome failure, the one mistake we knew we could never afford to make was becoming complacent.
That's why, instead of shying away from encouraging employees to make mistakes, we doubled down on an idea from an employee and launched the HubSpot Failure Forum. The Failure Forum is an internal event where HubSpotters volunteer to tell a story live about a mistake they've made in their careers and what they learned from it. The Forum not only teaches us all a lesson in humility, but it reaffirms the idea that this is a place where thinking big and taking risks is valuable..even if the business results aren't.
The good news is: Failure is still alive and well at HubSpot. Through Failure Forum, a young woman on our Customer Success team shared her experience interviewing for an internal position, not getting the job, and how she turned that loss into a win in the long run. Our VP of Product talked about the decisions behind building the "worst CSS replacement ever" and how those mistakes have shaped the way we build software today.
The idea of putting failures on display was a risk in and of itself. Would employees actually volunteer for this? Would executives? Is this taking failure too far? But we realized it might just be crazy enough to work. Once we grew from start-up to scale-up, it was no longer enough to mention failure in the Culture Code or to applaud people for taking risks after the fact. We needed to think bigger. We needed to not just embrace employee's failures and learnings, but celebrate them.
At the end of the day, there is no one way or point-solution for scaling culture. (At least I haven't found it. If you figure it out, don't hold out on me.) What matters is that you know what your company's core competitive advantages are from day one, and you stop at nothing to grow them with your business. The way you empower employees to be risk-takers will look very different in practice when you have 200 employees than when you have 2,000 employees globally. It's not your company, management team's, or employees' job to protect those values or perks, it's to future-proof them.
Failure Forum has helped us do that and scale core tenets of our culture globally. But I would bet that we're going to need something new, different, and bolder to walk the walk on those values within the next few years. And we'll likely try a few bad ideas before we land on a good one. What matters is that you can learn, iterate, and try again. Because I think you know what happens we don't invest in growing culture the same way we invest in growing teams, customers, and product: We fail.