True Failure

In February, when I was in Sweden to write the local edition of the Startup Guide, I noticed a curious trend: A lot of young entrepreneurs, often in their early twenties, would tell me that becoming an entrepreneur and starting their own company had become fashionable. “It has replaced the dream to be an athlete or a musician”, someone remarked. In a way, that’s good news, since being an entrepreneur is a much more attainable dream than becoming famous. But the interviews I did also taught me that being a successful founder, and thereby attaining a certain level of fame and respect, still takes a remarkable combination of inspiration, perseverance, and luck.

I was reminded of the young Swedes earlier today when I spoke with Anne Kjær Riechert, a social entrepreneur from Berlin. She mentioned the emotional rollercoaster that comes with the role, the many mishaps and challenges, but of course also how rewarding the experience of setting up a company can be. We agreed that the downsides of founding are woefully underreported in the media. Possibly because everybody loves a good startup story, especially one in which some self-made entrepreneur with a smart idea takes on the industry giants, defies the odds and becomes a success. Here’s an industry that not only appears hip but that we have somehow started seeing in the most positive, successful terms.

And nowhere is the mantra of “embracing failure” repeated as frequently than in the startup industry, nowhere do people more joyfully talk about wanting to fail – assuming it will give them the opportunity to start over again as a smarter person. In conversation, countless entrepreneurs have responded with “embracing failure” whenever I asked them to share a piece of advice. But the more often I heard it, the more it seemed like they were just paying lip service, as though the idea of “embracing failure” had become as trendy (and ultimately meaningless) as the the rockstars’ fame used to be. Hardly anyone mentioned actual failures – let alone dramatic, career-wrecking ones – or talked about how emotionally draining the enterprise of founding really is.

I am realizing now that I could have probed more forcefully, that I was perhaps too eager to write down each story as a tale of success and missed some true lessons of failure. But there is also an inherent selection bias in the reporting, since true failures don’t make it on our radar and entrepreneurs who lost everything rarely get interviewed. Just think of disastrous startups like Color or Amen, who launched amidst great fanfare, only to fade away from the market and our memory as quickly as they had arrived. I remember at least one occasion when an entrepreneur brushed aside their involvement in an unsuccessful venture, saying it was too long ago to be relevant (I mentioned it anyway).

Much has been written about Eli Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble”, but what stuck most permanently in my mind was something he said in an interview with Democracy Now! when the book first came out:

“Take news about the war in Afghanistan. When you talk to people who run news websites, they’ll tell you stories about the war in Afghanistan don’t perform very well. They don’t get a lot of clicks. People don’t flock to them. And yet, this is arguably one of the most important issues facing the country, but it will never make it through these filters. And especially on Facebook this is a problem, because the way that information is transmitted on Facebook is with the ‘like’ button. And the ‘like’ button, it has a very particular valence. It’s easy to click ‘like’ on ‘I just ran a marathon’ or ‘I baked a really awesome cake.’ It’s very hard to click ‘like’ on ‘war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year.'”

Facebook has famously replaced the like-button with an interface offering a broader spectrum of emotions. But what Pariser says about the mechanisms of media consumption remains true: it favors positive stories over negative ones. Sometimes that means news about the European Football Cup take precedence over escalating Climate Change. Or the illusion of a trendy industry marked by success stories eclipsing all those cases when a startup closed down and laid off their workforce. Perhaps the lesson shouldn’t be “Embrace Failure” but “Don’t start a company because it’s trendy”.