Is Failure a Good Thing?

If you have ever seen Steve Blank, “father of the lean startup,” speak you’ve heard him say:

We have a word for entrepreneurs that have failed in the Silicon Valley, we call them “experienced.”

This goes right along with Tim Brown’s observation that in order to foster innovation we need safe places where people can take risks.  But is failure really such a good thing?  Or, to say it another way, do we really need to encourage failure in order to promote innovation?

Marc Andreessen, Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist and founder of Netscape, isn’t so sure.  In a recent Wall Street Journal interview Andreessen says:

I’m really schizophrenic on this. I can argue both sides of it. The Midwestern Protestant in me is very strongly on the side of failure is terrible and horrible and awful and the goal of every entrepreneur should be to not fail. This whole thing where failure is somehow good in Silicon Valley, or failure is OK, or failure is wonderful, or failure is part of the process, is just a bunch of nonsense, and is actually a destructive sort of meme because it gives people an easy excuse to give up. If you look at a lot of the great successes in corporate history and in technology, they required real determination and real staying power.

However, on the other hand:

The other side of it that I can argue equally enthusiastically, is that an enormous cultural positive for the Valley and more broadly the U.S. is that failure does not end your career. Failure is not a mark of shame that means you are done in your field—which is true in a lot of the rest of the world. In the Valley, it means you have valuable experience. One of the things I always tell our entrepreneurs is, don’t just hire people out of successful companies, because the people out of successful companies didn’t learn anything. Maybe they were just along for the ride. Whereas, the people who have been through tough times tend to be much more resilient and they tend to be much more determined and they’re not daunted by things being hard.

How does failure fit into the hacker’s ethos?  Typically, a hacker doesn’t see failure as failure at all, but rather as a learning experience.  Every attempt to tackle a problem reveals more lessons that lead closer to a solution.  A hacker doesn’t seek out failures, but failures do become part of the hacker’s toolkit.  Andreessen goes on to say:

The way I try to resolve it is, I think there’s a grain of truth on both sides. I think both are kind of true and then it’s just a question of nuance and judgment. You really can’t just give up the minute things get hard. But at the same time, not everything works. And when something doesn’t work, it shouldn’t end your career, it should just inform the next thing you do. And that’s kind of how the Valley works.

The danger of saying “failure is good” is that it gives people an excuse to give up when things get hard.  This obviously isn’t good for innovation, because innovation is hard.  But we do need those “safe” environments where risks can be taken in order to spur innovation.

I saw Andreessen speak at the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco in 2012.  He was probably the only speaker that didn’t get up there and gush about how wonderful Lean Startup is and how it’s going to fix everything.  His main point was that some problems are hard, some opportunities need a large amount of investment to get off the ground, and not everything that’s worth doing can be done “lean.”  Indeed, some of the most interesting opportunities are the hard ones.

I see Andreessen’s point.  Could a “lean startup” have gotten us to the Moon?  However, while the obvious answer seems to no, I’m not so sure it’s that simple.  More on that in future posts.

Happy New Year everyone, thanks so much for reading!

  1. Taking failure as an experience and coming back is important and seems startup founders / entrepreneurs have that tendency more than others – which is indeed a good thing. And thanks to people like Steve and several great startups who make more people want to make things on their own despite failures.

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