Fast Failure is a Success

This phrase sounds like it came right out of a positive psychology seminar, doesn’t it? It’s nestled right alongside “Love your frailties as much as your strengths…” Oh well—it’s a fairly common phrase and is well-intended. While it might be more palatable to some if it’s re-phrased “Learn fast”, tying the concepts of success and failure together is worth commenting on.

The phrase “Fast Failure is a Success” consists of two parts: 1) moving fast–running mission critical experiments early in the life of your venture so you kill bad ideas quickly and don’t burn a lot of precious time and money; 2) equating failure with success–learning how to re-frame the notion of “failure” makes sense, simply because setbacks and failures come along with the territory of being an entrepreneur. If you can’t digest and rationalize failure as part of the learning process (and part of the hero’s journey inherent in entrepreneurship), you will get so depressed you’ll stay under the covers in the morning.

Regarding the first point (moving fast), in the early stage of your venture, how can you determine the critical experiments to run? There are not only a whole bunch of unknowns, there are even quite a few “unknown unknowns” (or “unk-unks”), where you don’t know what you don’t know. What’s a person to do? Well, the worst thing you can do is to engage in a free form jazz improvisation exploration, or embark on a fishing expedition, where you conduct consumer/customer research without a well-articulated set of hypotheses to prove or disprove. Instead, start by trying to pinpoint your most critical hypotheses or assumptions. These should be based on your binding constraints. As you may recall from your high school math classes, a constraint is a condition of an optimization problem that the solution must satisfy. Drawing from your decision sciences class, in linear programming, a binding constraint is a critical factor on which the solution is dependent. If you change it, the optimal solution will change. (A non-binding constraint doesn’t affect the optimal solution and can be changed without changing it.) So, as your write down your key assumptions or hypotheses, you need to do your best to determine what your binding constraints are. In our experience, they usually are centered around three areas: a) category dynamics (where your venture concept fits within the existing market structure and its value chain); b) category and concept economics (particularly where your concept’s unit economic model may be vulnerable) and c) consumer/customer behavior (is there a real problem and does your proposed solution truly solve it). For example, in category dynamics a binding constraint may be your ability to gain access to key suppliers or re-sellers. In concept economics, a binding constraint may be your end-to-end product delivery costs in B2C eCommerce. In consumer behavior, a binding constraint may be customer readiness to embrace a DIY medical healthcare records system or the true likelihood that consumers will take the extra step in food preparation that is necessary to enjoy your product.

So, based on your binding constraints, what key hypotheses are critical to prove or disprove to know if your venture concept has potential? Once you have identified them, do your “smoke-testing” – conduct interviews and develop early provocations/prototypes that your potential users can react to. Concept boards, positioning statements, sketches, storyboards, crude prototypes, etc.

Regarding the second point (equating failure with success) the research is clear: entrepreneurs generally fail multiple times before they launch a successful venture. So you’d be well served to learn to re-frame the concept of failure so you don’t get too discouraged when things get rough. The best way to do this, in our opinion, is to view your failures as experiments that provide an opportunity to learn, which is exactly what they are. As Thomas Edison said, “”I have not failed. I’ve justfound a thousand ways that won’t work.” You too are in the lab, experimenting. Each experiment that doesn’t work teaches you something vitally important. The trick is to make sure you draw learnings from each experiment and apply them, so you continue to get smarter. As American political theorist Benjamin Barber said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the success and the failures. I divide the world into the learners and the non-learners.”

I’ll wrap it up with two sort of existential thoughts on “failure.” First, real failure isn’t failure in the activity itself. Real failure lies in not doing the things you should do because you don’t have the guts. Real failure is the failure to act. Second, remember that ultimately these everyday so-called “failures” make us more real, more genuine. They teach us to let go of false self-images and superficial ego-directed goals and desires. They give us grit and resilience, deepen our humility and broaden our compassion.