The Art of Failing

I joined a book club at The Office Rwanda that is exploring how to support the budding startup community in Kigali via our reading and discussion of “Startup Communities” by Brad Feld.  One important trait of successful startup communities is the widespread acceptance of failure as a catalyst for learning and growth.

Our Rwandese colleagues noted that this runs counter to their culture, where failures are carefully hidden and rarely discussed lest one be judged as less than competent.  Conversely, in my conversations with entrepreneurs and accelerators in Kenya, I noted, there seemed to be an infatuation with sharing one’s business start-up failures.  Everyone loved “pivoting” from their original plans or counting off their numerous failures.

While sharing challenges and lessons learned is a step forward, I am concerned that discussions on failure are becoming too topical.  Tolerance for failure should not equate to brash decision-making.  We shouldn’t celebrate recklessness and wasted time.

There is an art to failing well, which Eric Rees outlines excellently in Lean Start-Up:


  1. Visualize your business model, perhaps using the business model canvas.
  2. List the core assumptions.
  3. Dig deeper and identify your weakest assumptions (e.g. the one or two that are “untested” and upon which the rest of the model relies).  These are areas that require further learning – there is no point in testing other assumptions at this juncture.
  4. In a simple and structured manner, isolate and test these weakest assumptions.
  5. Develop the metrics by which you will judge the relative success of this test.
  6. Create a minimum viable product (MVP), the minimum version of the core product/service/platform that allows you to achieve validated learning (e.g. test the one or more assumptions).
  7. Build/implement.
  8. Measure and collect data/feedback.
  9. Analyze data/feedback.  Determine if you achieved your goal.
  10. Start the cycle anew, slowing iterating and building your product/service/platform.

The point is to create a structured cycle of validated learning.  You might have lots of failures, but if you either tested the wrong assumptions or simply didn’t learn anything of value to carry your endeavor forward, the whole experiment was a waste of energy, time and money.

It’s not about quantity, but quality.  Don’t fail often; fail well.

As a startup community, we shouldn’t start and stop the conversation with: “Tell me about your failures.”  Rather, we should challenge entrepreneurs to dig deeper: “Tell me what you learned and what you’re doing with that knowledge.”


~ by responsiblenomad on July 6, 2013.

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