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.

The F-word: how Big Me will bounce back

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.

I had enough of the F-word last week, it wasn’t a good week. Burnley got relegated from the Premiership, the outcome of the General Election left me utterly depressed and I failed my grade five saxophone exam by two marks after I fluffed the sight reading piece. Suffice to say I played Joy Division and Radiohead tracks back to back on Sunday to lighten my mood.

So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week and build some agile thinking into my routine. Failure is inevitable sometimes and often out of our control, but we can choose to understand it, to learn from it, and to recover from it. No one likes to fail, and while we all know the importance of learning from mistakes, individuals, teams and organisations can struggle to bounce back. How can we see the experience as an opportunity for growth instead of the kiss of death or shattering our dreams?

In his 1950 film Rashomon, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa depicts the story of a rape and murder four times, from the perspectives of four characters. The message is clear- different people can see the same events in dramatically different ways – and this phenomenon is particularly evident when it comes to failure.

An outcome that an employee regards as satisfactory may be seen by her manager as entirely unacceptable. When a project is an unequivocal flop, colleagues disagree over the reasons why. These reactions, and their effect on workplace relationships, often become more problematic than the original event. As a result, how people respond to failure is of great importance. It’s often harder to lead a team past a failure than it is to help one person. Some people may be very resilient and others might feel more bruised.

Not all failures are created equal, so an understanding of failure’s causes and contexts will help to avoid the blame game and institute an effective strategy for learning from failure. Although an infinite number of things can go wrong in organisations, mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent:

Preventable failures in predictable operations Most failures in this category can indeed be considered ‘bad’, they usually involve deviations from a defined process or routine operation. With proper training and support, employees can follow those processes consistently. When they don’t, deviance, inattention, or lack of ability is usually the reason.

Unavoidable failures in complex systems A large number of failures are due to the inherent uncertainty of work in that a particular combination of issues may have never occurred before. Triaging patients in a hospital emergency room, responding to enemy actions on the battlefield, or running a fast-growing tech start-up all occur in unpredictable situations where system failure is a perpetual risk.

Intelligent failures at the frontier Failures in this category can be considered ‘good’ because they provide valuable new knowledge that can help an organisation leap ahead and ensure its future growth – which is why they are sometimes called ‘intelligent’ failures. They occur when experimentation is necessary, so discovering new drugs, designing an innovative product, and testing customer reactions in a brand-new market are tasks that require intelligent failures – in essence it’s about discovery and ‘trial and error’.

At the frontier, the right kind of experimentation produces good failures quickly and you can avoid the unintelligent failure of conducting experiments at a larger scale than necessary. Tolerating unavoidable process failures in complex systems and intelligent failures at the frontiers of knowledge won’t promote mediocrity. Indeed, tolerance of these failures is essential for any organisation that wishes to extract the knowledge such failures provide.

But putting the type of failure to one side, as a leader of an organisation, how do you face up to your team at the point of failure? How do you dust yourself and your team down, and go again? Here are some thoughts.

First, take control of your own emotions Research shows that a leader’s feelings are far more contagious than a team member’s so do whatever you need to move on from the disappointment yourself so that you’re ready to help your team deal with their crisis recovery. You need to be genuinely in control of your feelings or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality at a time of failure

Give them space At the same time, you shouldn’t become a ‘beacon of positivity’ before the team is ready. It’s okay to let everyone wallow in negative feelings for a little while before saying ‘Let’s move on’. When you acknowledge the disappointment – with comments like ‘This is tough for us all’ – you’re not just stroking people’s emotions you’re facilitating a critical appraisal of the situation.

Be clear about what went wrong Don’t cover up what happened or resort to simple dismissive comments that abdicate responsibility. Avoid phrases like ‘let’s look on the bright side’, instead, be clear – ‘We didn’t get the result we wanted because they were more talented than us’. When you focus on the facts, you can call it like it is without being demotivating.

Don’t point fingers It’s more important to focus on what’s to blame, rather than who is to blame. If the fault really does lie with one person or a few people, then talk to those individuals in private and focus on their actions, not character, something like: ‘Here’s the mistake you made. It doesn’t mean you’re not in the team, but we need to understand why so it doesn’t happen again and we can move on’. You can also address the group but be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t single anyone out.

Shift the mood At some point it’s also important to move on from analysing the failure to talking about what comes next. The mutual commiserating and examination of what went wrong is useful only up to a point, then pushing the team to look forward and be more strategic, open-minded thinking and discussing how you will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Ensure the tone is positive and energised.

The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This is not due to a lack of commitment to learning, but the lack of a learning culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with, and responsible for, facing up to and learning from failures.

Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy – and there must be consequences – but if someone is punished or fired, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted blame.

Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, after all, isn’t it the lack of fear of failure, a willingness to stumble during a quest, that gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place? Don’t let failure remove your spark, but having said that, embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided.

Failure should not be celebrated, yet there is a macho cult of failure at times surrounding entrepreneurship. Accepting that failure is a natural part of doing business, and developing the right perspective on its value, will help fix the fear of failure. But having said that, having done the post-mortem on the analysis of failure, how do you then bounce back from failure and turn it into a success? Here are some thoughts about ‘bounce-back-ability’:

Define success on your own terms Failure is a subjective term, so why pin your sense of self-worth to something that hasn’t happened as you wanted it to? Success is how high you bounce back having hit the bottom. You should not be okay with average. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Find the value in failure I could give you all types of statistics for entrepreneurs that eventually succeeded after abundant failures, and it’s not only about monetary success, but about personal success, bouncing back and continuing to move forward on the path that makes you happy.

Act on what you’ve learned Anything can be useful if we learn from it and then do something with that knowledge. We know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alas there is no magical formula for telling us what to keep doing and what to do differently. We have to gauge for ourselves what’s working and where we could improve and then we have to keep going, knowing full well there are no guarantees.

Focus on the process, not the results Just because you didn’t reach a specific outcome, that doesn’t mean you can’t still do what you’d like to do. It’s not over just because you didn’t hit one specific outcome. If you keep going, you will inevitably identify new possibilities – adopting a process-oriented approach means it is easier to be mindful and focus on the action steps.

Stay Positive Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the mist clears. It’s the difference between walking with your head held high reaching for the sky and walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles.

Find opportunities in adversity I forget where I recently read this story, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.

Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, but it should never stop you trying because you’re afraid to do so – reflect, learn, go again. Failure is a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change course, or you’re not ready yet. Failure is not thinking you’ve failed, rather that you need to go better next time.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need is also the same – to realise success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point.

Whilst we want to be positive and optimistic, there are times when life doesn’t go according to plan and we get disappointed – last week showed me that. The challenge is to ensure that the impacts of our disappointments are minimal and to bounce back as quickly as possible whilst still acknowledging the let-down and not living in denial.

I read an interesting blog by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/), which inspired me. It talks about the two identities we all have – Big Me and Little Me. Big Me is the version of you that comes out when you’re at your best, the identity you display when you live up to your potential, and achieve your goals. Big Me is who you are when you’re fully engaged in life rather than partially engaged. Big Me is you on top of your game.

On the other hand, Little Me is the version of yourself that shows up when you’re inconsistent, when you lack focus, and when you fall short of your potential. Little Me is that side of you that makes excuses and hesitates when faced with uncertainty or discomfort, and sulks in the pool of failure.

Here’s the thing about Big Me and Little Me – they are not different people, they are two versions of the same person and these two versions of yourself compete to show up on any given day. So what makes the difference?

We all have good days every now and then, days when we feel motivated, productive, powerful, and healthy. But having a good day every day is really hard. What makes the difference between the days when you show up as the Big Me version of yourself versus the Little Me version of yourself? It’s all about choosing your attitude, do you kick-start or sit-back?

For me, keep pushing yourself forward and maintain your enthusiasm for life is the answer – to quote Winston Churchill, Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. For me, maximum effort is the minimum requirement, I simply keep going, being relentless, being limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

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. I’ve written it on a post-it-note and pinned it to my study wall. Just like Burnley and the Labour Party, I’ll bounce back, with agile thinking, clumsy fingers and the need for more practice won’t stop Big Me passing that saxophone exam again.