The Problem With “Failing Fast”

There’s a large body of thought out there (especially in startup culture) that abides by the credo of “fail fast”. Basically, the idea is to launch something quickly, get it out in the marketplace, and then see how people respond to it. This holds with startups and side projects, and is the driving idea behind events like Startup Weekend.

I’ve started to see a bit of a problem with this approach however. The problem with startups in general is that it is incredibly hard to tell when you are failing. Right now, there are thousands of entrepreneurs running failing businesses – they just don’t know it yet. Most startups fail – that’s a fact, and one that people tend to forget. I was part of a slowly failing startup for over a year, and we were some of the last people to realize it.

I think the issue is that it is not only hard to tell if you are failing, but it continuously seems like you are succeeding. During the year I spent with a failing startup, we would have several weeks of work punctuated by positive events – great meetings with people who loved the idea, good feedback from some very smart people, press coverage, and even a funding event just a month before we shut down. In the midst of positive metrics and events – more press, (slowly) increasing metrics, enthusiastic reactions from investors and other entrepreneurs – it was nearly impossible for us to tell that we were failing. We were playing the wrong game, trying to grow our business in an area that didn’t make much sense. Looking back on things, even if the metrics we were using would have increased by 500% in 2 months, we still would not have been a near-profitable company. This was certainly a situation where we could have used strategy – we were trying to win a battle that wasn’t worth winning.

This issue goes beyond feedback and vanity metrics. Not only is it possible to look like you are succeeding when you really aren’t, but it’s even easier to feel like you are succeeding while you are failing. Startups are hard work, and you spend tons of time working towards a definite project end. Finishing a marketing campaign or writing the final lines of code for a feature all feel like success. You set a goal and worked hard to complete it. My entire life, setting a goal and completing it meant I succeeded. All through school, finishing a task meant that I had completed something and completed it well. That’s not the case in startups. Rather, there’s a large possibility that what you spent hours building has no bearing on your chances of success.

This difficulty in measuring success and progress extends beyond startups. People (myself included) get caught up in vanity metrics (Facebook friends, Twitter followers, blog readers) that look like personal success. Does having 1000 Twitter followers really mean that you’re making an impact? Does 1000 Facebook friends really mean that you are a good person and a genuine friend? Does your number of LinkedIn connections show how well-connected you are? These things can all act as distractions. Worse, they can fool you into believing you are something you’re not. This things are tools – yes they can help facilitate and create relationships, but they aren’t measuring sticks. Carpenters would never judge each other on the number of tools the other owned. Rather, they judge someone by their body of work.

As an entrepreneur, it is so easy to get addicted to the feeling of “success” that comes with telling people you run your own company. You can easily sell something on a vision you have for your company, regardless of how close you are to that vision. The hard part of all this is delivering real results. In the end, that’s all you are measured on. I made a horrible timing error this past year that is hurting my business, yet every day I can still feel “successful” talking to people about running a company.

This doesn’t mean I dislike running my own company. I love it. I’m learning so much, meeting some amazing people, and am very happy with where I am. I just find it so easy to get sucked into the trappings of startups and not focus on the real work that needs to be done.

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  • L. Rick

    I would be interested in knowing your definition of “failure”.  If you equate failure to a lack of sales/profits/paying customers/etc. – all external and objective measures – then your point is valid.  But are those the right measures?  Did you fail to learn anything while working for the “failed” startup?  Were you happy, doing what you love, producing a body of work you were proud of?  In my opinion, those are better metrics to gauge success.  Public opinion is finicky and other people’s “judgment” is biased at best and mean spirited at worst.  Failure and success are defined by the measuring sticks used.  Don’t fall prey to the markets definition of success and failure.  Find your own measuring stick that is true to who you are and use it.