Why We Must Celebrate Failures

Written By on July 26th, 2011 | Category: Fail Startup Life | 38 Comments

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Most startups will fail. It’s just how the numbers work. The issue I have is with the definition of failure. Is it a failure when you get to work on something you’re passionate about? Is your day a failure when you learn something new? No. This post comes after the announcement that Sprouter will be closing their doors on August 2nd.

To say that I’m a fan of Sprouter would be an understatement. I’m a loyal supporter, contributor and consider Sarah one of my best friends. How the startup community and next generation of entrepreneurs interpret this event is very important. It’s critical that we understand what’s happening and put things into perspective. Below are my thoughts on why we must celebrate failures, especially amongst technology startups.

It’s not failing – it’s learning

I’ve always said that it’s normal for companies to fail and that the net effect of a company having been started, especially in a small community, will always have an everlasting effect. Anyone who’s been involved in a startup realizes that it’s all about learning and experience. The normal state of a startup is not knowing how – or what to do – and being o.k. with that. Regardless of the size of the startup, everyone involved in the early days feel the pressure to execute and over come obstacles. You can’t learn this in school – it’s only taught when you experience it. The raw nature of doing a startup allows everyone involved to develop and learn new skills that are invaluable to themselves and potential employers.

Learning how to be comfortable with uncertainty

The number one character trait of an entrepreneur is the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty. Actually, there’s a direct correlation between the size of the uncertainty, and their comfort level, with the potential size of the outcome and probability of achieving it. You can only develop this trait when you’re trying to bend the world to create something uniquely yours and it’s pushing back on you. That’s why we need to celebrate failures and support anyone who’s been involved in a startup. These folks are a rare breed and the economy, innovation and our communities rely on them being out there and creating once again.

It’s part of nature

No one I know ever came out of the gate with a win. It usually always got preceded with a failure, or two. What I learnt from that is we sometimes need to learn those lessons the hard way to lay the foundation for the next venture. Just like the way a forest rejuvinates itself by feeding on dead leaves that fall to the forest floor – so does a startup community. There’s definitely an ecosystem that slowly develops in each city and it’s usually fueled by individuals and teams that worked together at a startup that failed. When people go through that process together, they learn things they couldn’t have otherwise. They see patterns, learn what they’re good at and meet others that compliment their skills. Many time they talk about “if I was doing things my way, I would have …” and next thing you know a new company is started. We need to celebrate the fact that these people were able to work together during such interesting times – hoping they created a friendship and bond that might spark the next startup.

How do we celebrate failures

We can start off by framing it for what it is. It’s not a failure. Any company that starts and gives it 110% only to come up short, did not fail. I refuse to call it that. Is an artist a failure if his painting doesn’t come out the way he envisioned it? No, it’s just a piece of art that couldv’e been better. That’s how I feel about startups that can’t continue executing for lack of funding or resources. The art was still created – peoples lives were still changed. Don’t say things like; “sorry to hear …” or “my condolences” – cause there wasn’t a loss. There was a huge gain and the best thing you can do is say congrats and ask what’s next? Maybe even offer up some help to members of the team. The way we celebrate failures is by viewing them as successes.

Comments.

  • http://startupcfo.ca startupcfo

    Good post Dan. Celebrating failure is much less commonplace for many of the Canadian reading this. That has to change. As you said, most startups will fail. 

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Thanks Mark. I’m always concerned when a team has to make the tough decision to shut down and how other entrepreneurs interpret that. I hope I shed some light into how we need to look at this and use it to fuel our personal growth and other startups – especially in Canada!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=604070897 Sri Kumar

    I am a fan of Sprouter too. Entrepreneurs take risks. That’s the core of their business. Others are 9 to 5′ers that dont. I believe we can do what 9-5′ers do without any effort at all but its not the other way around. A failed venture is actually an awesome experience if you look at it. The best way to learn is through failure and Sarah is much much better off failing than to be in a mediocre company. 

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      What an awesome way to look at it. “Sarah is much much better off failing than in a mediocre company” – I really like that.  Isn’t that true for all amazing entrepreneurs?

      Are we all better off that Sarah decided to create Sprouter than make some mediocre / big / boring company better?

      Thanks for the comment Sri.

      Today I raise my glass to the team at Sprouter
      http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/trsorbonnespeech.html

      • http://sprouter.com Sarah Prevette

        Thank you to everyone for the well wishes and kind words. It means so much and I am truly privileged to have met so many incredible people on this journey.

        Dan; my gratitude for you, your support and your friendship over the past several years knows no definition. I can’t do you justice in a comment box so I’ll save it for when we catch up over dinner sometime soon.

        Over the course of the past few years I have learned a whole lot about my strengths, and a whole lot more about my shortcomings.

        It hasn’t been an easy road and I’ve learned many lessons the hard
        way.

        Like all companies, we measure our
        performance by our revenue. But that’s only one angle of success. What
        I’m most proud of at Sprouter is the high
        level of goodwill and useful knowledge that passed between our
        community. It was the overt generosity and pay-it-forwardness of our
        experts (like Dan) that made Sprouter magical.

        The Sprouter community was an
        incredible thing; entrepreneurs coming together to help other
        entrepreneurs. People volunteering their time and expertise to support
        strangers. I couldn’t be more proud of the passion our team had trying to help others reach success and the support they provided to first time founders.

        I don’t want to evangelize failure – because it certainly isn’t something to strive for – but I certainly agree with any sentiment that encourages more entrepreneurial thinking and risk-taking in Canada. The best thing we can do is ensure that people (startups and investors alike) are going in with their eyes open about risks, odds and potential challenges.

  • http://twitter.com/andrewdraper andrew draper

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    Having met Sarah once back in March (she treated me like a rockstar when we were introduced, should’ve been the other way IMO but it certainly brightened my day!) then after seeing her speak recently at StartupFest I have no doubt she’s destined for greatness of some magnitude and this is just a stepping stone along the way (as well as the rest of the Sprouter team).

    It’s only a failure if the people involved don’t learn something & continue creating—good entrepreneurs MUST create. 

    If I stopped after each “failure” I’d be long dead, sitting in a cubicle farm counting the hours until it was time to go home. Instead after each perceived failure the next thing I’ve done has been more informed by the previous and things have moved forward quicker and a little better—remembering that keeps me sane…mostly.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      So true .. especially the rockstar part – it’s what made her special.

  • Gene Fowler

    Good post. I’m on my third company… learning lots.. the key is to fail fast and get back on course.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Gene, I love you man … one of the few guys in NB willing to put it all out there ;)

      Thx for the comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/connors Ryan Connors

    Entrepreneurship is all about taking those calculated risks. Someone wise said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and failure is a big part of that. Having the right attitude can propel anyone through life’s barriers and lead to success.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      As long as you don’t get out of the game, missing a shot doesn’t mean you’ve lost.

      Thx for the comment Ryan.

  • http://www.HubSpot.com Dharmesh Shah

    I could not agree with you more.  One of the things I love about startups is that failure is forgiven and a natural part of the process.  I try to fail at something small every day, and something big every now and then.  

    My best wishes to Sarah.  She has a palpable passion for startups.  Will be interesting to see what crazy ride she takes next.

  • http://www.Spidvid.com Jeremy Campbell

    This is so sad! I felt totally on board with Sprouter as I connected with Erin many times, visited their office to give feedback for Sprouter 2.0, and was getting lots of value out of Sprouter thanks to great people like Dan! RIP Sprouter, Toronto’s startup scene, and entrepreneurs across the world will miss you! 

    Can’t wait to see what Sarah, Erin, and the gang do next, I know it will be startup related! Cheers to Sprouter! 

  • Ajay Yadav

    I think without failing you can not taste success and what truely it is. I started a company with no knowledge and after failing and learning I am always prepared For something better and no matter if I’m failing again but I know when I am goin to succeed then it’s going to big. Good Luck to Sarah and we are waiting for what’s next?

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Thx for the comment and best wishes Ajay

  • http://twitter.com/AndrewPritchard Andrew Pritchard

    Oh, HEAR HEAR!

    “There was a huge gain and the best thing you can do is say congrats and ask what’s next?” Indeed! Failure only happens when you’ve given up totally; everything else is just feedback of one form or another.

    It takes immense courage to risk “failure”, and even more to admit it. I applaud the Sprouter crew for the decisive action. My biggest mistake as an entrepreneur was continuing with a business that wasn’t working for too long. I’m glad they didn’t do the same, and am awed by the amazing success they achieved.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      I second that!

  • http://twitter.com/JanetAronica Janet Aronica

    So beautifully beautifully written. Thank you Dan. Good luck to you Sarah.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Thx Janet

  • http://blog.usermood.com Dave Churchville

    Ending is not failure.  All startup experiences end.  Whether it’s running out of funds, being acquired and assimilated into a corporate behemoth, or having a spectacular IPO only to realize you now have to manage quarterly expectations, those are just different endings.

    I’ve actually been involved with all three kinds of endings, and the “best” ending turned out to be the “out of funds” one, because of the passion of the team, the excitement of the mission, and the flat out fun we were having.  The other endings were more profitable for sure, but not really “better” in how I valued the experience.

    It comes down to what really matters – your time, and how you choose to spend it.  Endings can be sad, but mostly they are an opportunity to improve the quality of your experience by starting something even better aligned with your vision and purpose.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      The journey .. love that!

      Thx Dave.

  • Saulcolt

    I may be the only one with this viewpoint but I think the fact that we forgive failure is dangerous and a bad lesson to teach. Letting people know that there is a safety net under them allows them to not try as hard as it is nessesary to be successful.

    My comments are of a general nature and not directed at Sarah. Sarah is a good friend and am sure she does not want to be the new face of failure because in her mind failure is not ok (making assumptions) and in my opinion she isn’t a failure because Sprouter helped launch many carreers and companies and that legacy will last far after anyone remembers any speculation on todays events.

    We need to forget failure because if that is what we are striving for then that’s all we as a startup community will achieve.

    My .02

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Love the site

    S!

    Saul Colt
    http://Www.saulcolt.com

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Saul,

      I totally get what you mean.  We don’t want to make failing o.k.  I get that.  However, other than San Francisco, I’ve never been exposed to a community where it’s been a badge of honor and caused the type of behavior that you’re hinting towards.  If anything, most are paralyzed from starting due to the fear that they may not succeed.

      So, for the time being – I think it’s more important to understand what it mea and how to leverage the outcome – then (as others often do, not you) sit there and criticize or make assumptions on what went right or wrong.

      My goal in all this startupy stuff I do is to see more people start.  It’s a mindset and it begins with how we look at failures.

      Love, love, love that you left a comment – thx man.

      DM

  • http://www.eqentia.com William Mougayar

    Well said Dan. The most important part of “failures” is the lessons being extracted and how the person uses these lessons to do better things in the future. I’m sure that @erinbury:twitter  and @sarahprevette:twitter have learned a ton, and one day will share it with us! 

  • http://www.hoseanna.com Tracey Solomon

    I never had the pleasure of meeting Sarah, but I eagerly awaited her Sprouter newsletters every week. I love the care and detail that she put into the companies that she featured and it was clear that she had her finger on the pulse of what was hot in the marketplace, not to mention a knack for picking software, tools and techniques that new entrepreneurs like myself could use immediately. Case in point – the first time I heard about squareup was on Sprouter!

    There is so much attention put on female entrepreneurs and the loud chatter around how difficult it is for women-run businesses to get funded. Sarah is not a female entrepreneur, she is an entrepreneur, period. I have no doubt that it won’t be long before I am once again, looking forward to Wednesday morning and wake up to something from Sarah in my Inbox.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Dan.  Failure is only bad if you fail without learning. Not only did Sarah learn a ton while doing Sprouter, she created loads of positive value in the process. 

    You’ve taught me so much about lean startups and customer development that I can’t help seeing everything through that lens.  If Build, Measure, Learn applies within a given startup, it certainly must apply at a higher level to the longer arc of all of our careers as well.  

    I see this not as a failure but as a super-pivot. Instead of the constant being the business itself, the constant in Sarah. She is smart and hardworking and savvy and she’s definitely going to dent the universe, whether that’s her next startup or a few more down the road.

    I’m super excited to see what she does next.

    Thanks for everything, Dan. 

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Clay, glad I can be of help and agree with you – Sarah “created loads of positive value” – that’s indisputable!

      I’m going to miss my Sprouter Q&A 
      http://sprouter.com/danmartell

  • http://www.brianburridge.com/ Brian Burridge

    Totally agree Dan. I believe most of the so called failures in life, really aren’t a failure at all. The only real failure is not pursuing your dreams with full commitment. The true failures are people who never give it a shot; who talk and dream but never try out of “fear of failure”. But giving it your all, taking a risk even if its just a risk of perceived failure among your peers, experimenting with ideas, all this equals success regardless of an outcome. Everything in life is like a science experiment. There are no failures in science when testing theories. We never know if they will work, that is exactly why we test them. We test one theory, we learn from the results, we move on to another. The only failure is not having the bravery to test it in the first place. 

    Sarah and other founders who launch their ideas and act on their passions are successful and stand out amongst the general population who will never take such a risk, or make such an effort. No Sprouter didn’t become a successful business, but Sarah and her team were successful. Successful in overcoming fears, successful in building a product that met a need, excited users, and involved experts. They were successful in working toward a goal, putting all their passions into it, and “taking a shot”.

    I have no doubt we’ll see them all again, successfully investing their skills, passion, experience and bravery into another dream; another concept. As long as each of us keeps putting all we have into whater we believe in, we can all have personal success.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Awesome words of wisdom “The true failures are people who never give it a shot; who talk and dream but never try out of “fear of failure”.

      Thx for that.

  • http://chatfe.com/ Paul Orlando

    Great post. Learning to “be comfortable with uncertainty” is right on. So much of what running a startup is about. 

  • http://www.flyingpenguin.ca Doug Johnson

    I can honestly say that every time in my life I’ve had a major setback, it turned out to be for the best because it allowed me to go forward in an exciting new direction.  (I can also honestly say that it was very difficult to look at it that way at the time.)

    I met a lot of great people through Sprouter and SproutUp.  I’d like to thank Sarah for that.

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Doug, thanks for the comment – I’m sure Sarah appreciates you’re message.

  • http://twitter.com/vilemjungmann Vilem Jungmann

    OMG, I will-must repeat what has been said here many times – I could NOT agree with ALL OF YOU here more!!! We are working on a startup now too and this is exactly the way Iam gonna go – either fail or be the best. No other option of ending up as a mediocre company.
    Congrats to Sarah from Sprouter, we are not worried about her and are excited to see her next ventures. Good luck to you all startupers!

  • Anonymous

    Dan:  

    Love this post.  I’m writing one now with a similar theme.  The word “failure” is thrown around all the time, so rarely with anyone taking the time to define it. Failure seems oddly celebrated, as if it’s a right of passage or something. 

    A better approach is the one you suggest. In our lives, there always will be things that worked and things that didn’t work.  We can learn from both. I don’t really see how liberally labeling things with the F word (failure) serves a useful purpose.  It’s just a vague, stand-in word for the facts.  Why not talk about the facts?  They’re what’s interesting, and they’re what we learn from.  Not labels.  

    Great post.  
    Susan 

    • http://twitter.com/danmartell Dan Martell

      Susan, love you’re thoughts on the F word ;) . Thx for the comment.

      • Anonymous

        Dan: 

        Great timing.  More thoughts on the F word are appear in my guest post today on @markmcguinnes:disqus  ’s blog …  
        Here’s the link:http://bit.ly/q3r3SlWould love to know what you think.  Love your blog, by the way.  Look forward to reading more.Susan

        • Anonymous

          Dan: 

          In the comment I just left, the link isn’t right, so how about I try again? 

          More thoughts on the F word, appearing in my guest post today on Lateral Action:http://bit.ly/q3r3SlThanks again for a great post!Susan

      • Anonymous

        Dan: 

        Great timing.  More thoughts on the F word are appear in my guest post today on @markmcguinnes:disqus  ’s blog …  
        Here’s the link:http://bit.ly/q3r3SlWould love to know what you think.  Love your blog, by the way.  Look forward to reading more.Susan