Don’t develop a fetish for failure: triage your startup

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for ‘after death’, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle ever recorded so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup community vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the cultural fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn?

You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that was the case, so you won’t make the same mistake twice, but isn’t it the case that you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time? As Jason Fried said, You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking? Surely the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

The common sense is overwhelming. If you’re starting a new venture, going into it believing it’s going to work has to be your mindset. You don’t have to assume you’ve got to collect pain points along the way as the necessary badges, failure being a prerequisite of success. Don’t believe your first idea won’t be your best one, and don’t accept that your credibility is only enhanced because of collecting the scars of failure to parade to others.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. Failing is an overstated hobby, another glorification in the dictionary of entrepreneurial hyperbole.

So let’s pause, and if the startup patient is in intensive care, rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments based on the severity of their condition, and that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, what are the most common causes of startup failure, and what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money Check Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk on ‘finding your why’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money made, you’re setting yourself up for business failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as becoming a unicorn, winning awards or an IPO, it is a skewed measure of success. It’s barely what really defines success for most entrepreneurs. How about making your mark with customers, sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe?

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Work hard, work smart, that’s my strategy. Avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome and vanity metrics.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startups leader’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be genuinely in control of your emotions or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality in a startup, no matter what the situation. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. I agree with Reid Hoffman that if you review your first product version and don’t feel embarrassment, you’ve spent too much time on it. On the other hand, keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge.

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process, you then know how much capital and revenue you need, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t Move Slow. Move Fast Moving at a snail’s pace can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting to customers first, and it can deplete your motivation. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward.

There are some talented entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but we generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need to realise is, however, success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

There will be a moment when you will be dejected in fulfilling your startup dreams and melancholy thoughts will haunt you, they will try to restrict you. But, if you have a robust will and determination about yourself then no matter what happens, you will conquer the difficult moments in your startup life. There have been myriads of successful people who have faced brick walls throughout their journey, but they have exceptionally pulled it off. There should be determination, an optimistic approach towards life and no matter, what life throws at you, just stand up and fight.

Yes, starting a business is hard, and you certainly could fail. I’m not suggesting failure isn’t an option, I’m only suggesting that it shouldn’t be the assumed or default outcome. It doesn’t need to be. Have confidence in your ideas, in your vision, and in your business. Assume success, not failure.

Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be added to your thinking. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, which resonate with the forward challenge, we go again.

Adopt the same mindset as a startup founder, don’t look back in anger. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

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