Respecting Failure

Alexia Tsotsis just published an important post on TechCrunch about an insidious side of startup culture, one she refers to as “the cult of success”. 

In the startup world we pay lip service to risk all the time. No concept is more hallowed or hyped in Silicon Valley than “entrepreneurship”, and the defining feature of entrepreneurship is risk. 

You Can’t Spell Risk Without Failure

Risk, by definition, implies frequent failure. Yet while we recognize the value of failure in principle, when presented with an individual instance of it, one involving a specific startup and actual people, we too often respond with snark and schadenfreude. TechCrunch, and the rest of the tech press, are not immune from this, as Alexia admits. Too often, how the ups and downs of a startup get covered depends more on how close the founders and investors are to the “cool kids” rather than on the merits or the long view.

What’s an appropriate response to failure, then? Should we celebrate it, as we do success?

I believe not. If the word “failure” is to mean anything, then it’s not something to be celebrated. We can, however, respect failure.

Entrepreneurship and risk aren’t to be lauded for their own sake, either. Anyone can take risks: to paraphrase Dawkins, however many ways there may be of being successful, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being a failure. Silicon Valley is about taking smart risks.

Smart Risks and Virtuous Entrepreneurship 

How should we define a smart risk? Clearly we can’t do so retroactively, by whether a venture succeeded. That just brings us right back to where we started.

We can, however, evaluate a startup using the old-fashioned virtues that have underpinned enterprise since long before Silicon Valley.

  • Hard work: are the founders and employees dedicated?
  • Execution: is the startup consistently and rapidly moving towards its goal?
  • Professionalism: Are the founders and employees good at what they do?
  • Respect: Do the founders treat their investors and employees as true partners, and do they deserve the trust of their users?
  • Focus: Is the startup keeping its eye on the ball at all times?
  • Inspiration: are the founders, investors, employees and users excited?
  • Vision: Does the startup have a north star goal, no matter how unlikely, for two, five or ten years out?
  • Noble goals: is the startup trying to make some corner of our world even a little bit better? Or are they pandering to baser human qualities just to make money?

If a startup scores well on these values, then it deserves our respect and admiration whether it succeeds or fails. And by the same token, if a startup doesn’t live up to enough of these values then we should be leery of it even if it happens to “succeed” by some limited definition of success.

Respecting Failure Without Celebrating It

If we focus too greatly on outcomes, then lauding entrepreneurship becomes nothing more than empty lip service. But if we’re still to tell the wheat from the chaff we can’t glamorize failure for its own sake either.

Entrepreneurs, who’ve been so driven towards success, aren’t likely to take much solace in being told that failure is fine. Although the intention of that sentiment may be kind, it actually undermines everything a founder works for.

Instead, if we focus on virtue, we have a solid footing on which to respect founders, employees and investors, while they’re in mid-venture, regardless of the outcome.

If a venture ultimately fails, this respect gives the entrepreneurs something to be proud of and build on for the future. And the knowledge that they’re respected for what they’re doing now, and not for some murky future outcome, may lift some of the enormous mental and emotional pressure of entrepreneurship. Because, as Alexia puts it, “killing it” isn’t worth it.