It’d be fascinating to see what Samuel Beckett, the legendary playwright famous for his bleak stories, would make of his second life as a startup quote merchant.
Richard Branson, the popular imagination’s nonpareil of entrepreneurs, was one of the latest to channel Beckett in a blog post focusing on Virgin’s future. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better,” wrote Sir Richard, taking a wild stab at profundity.
To riff on the title of Raymond Carver’s most famous short story: what are we talking about when we talk about failure?
But, believe it or not, Beckett, a gloomy cynic if there ever was one, wasn’t directing the line at ‘lean startups’ or ‘pivoting’. As Slate's Mark O'Connell points out, when you read the full line in Worstward Ho, the play from where Branson lifted the quote, it quickly loses some of its TED Talk shimmer: “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.”
The quote’s rebirth as entrepreneurial meme fodder prompted the author Ned Beauman to write in the New Inquiry: “Watching a liturgy from such a gloomy and merciless author getting repurposed to cheer up mid-level executives is like watching a neighbour clear out their gutters with a stick they found in the garden, not realizing the stick is, in fact, a human shinbone.”
Mainstream recuperation of Beckett aside, there’s another question at play here. It’s not just the second life of Beckett as an indefatigable startup guru; it’s the second life of failure as a positive. It seems unbelievable that this argument needs to be made but here it goes, nonetheless: failure and failing are bad. It’s literally the antithesis of success.
Rob Ashgar nailed it in Forbes when he wrote: “I believe we're making so much of our mistakes and thinking of failure as the new black that we're getting bad at celebrating actual success.”
I spent 18 months to two years putting a business together that I had to systematically dismantle.
“‘Fail fast’ is a phrase that most serious entrepreneurs would laugh at,” says Adrian Harvey, ex-MD of E.ON and now founder of training company Elephants Don’t Forget. “Would you invest your hard earned cash into a startup run by an entrepreneur who boasted that she had presided over a string of fast failures? Or would you prefer to invest in entrepreneurs that have a string of successes under their belt?”
To riff on the title of Raymond Carver’s most famous short story: what are we talking about when we talk about failure? Somewhere along the way, the ‘fail fast’ mantra went too far, casually eliding what it means to really fail.
Ask the Irish entrepreneur John Stapleton about failure and he’ll tell you. “My failure was pretty bad because it wasn’t like I had a series of failures and then a success,” says Stapleton, a pioneer in the fresh foods industry. His first company, New Covent Garden Soup (NCGSC), was a great success and then his next, Glencoe Foods, was a failure.
Glencoe Foods was Stapleton’s attempt at translating his British success to the American market. “Personally, after NCGSC, I thought I knew everything, if not about business, then certainly about fresh soup,” says Stapleton. “We were coming off a high. I was slightly arrogant - but you need a bit of arrogance to get things done.”
Glencoe was a failure. Not a miserable failure, as Stapleton says, they had done a lot right. But it was a failure nonetheless. “We had to lay all these people off that we hired, people I had gotten to know,” says Stapleton reflecting on it.
“I spent 18 months to two years putting a business together that I had to systematically dismantle. All that has an effect. You sit there and you’ve put money and time into something. And reputationally, I’ve got people to follow me into my new venture.”
When I was younger, I experienced failure personally and in my career and it nearly finished me off.
Stapleton rebounded from Glencoe to found Little Dish, a highly successful food brand aimed at toddlers. The rebound was swift, says Stapleton, because of how he reacted to failure. It wasn’t the adverse situation that was valuable, he stresses, but the dealing with it.
“A cult has developed around failure. In fact, I’d say there’s bit of a cult around entrepreneurship generally, too,” says Stapleton. “The failure bit is lauded. You certainly can’t build a career out of failure. But what failure does, is it makes you stronger. The only way that happens, though, is if you internalise it and think about it a bit and learn from it.”
The problem with mantras like ‘fail fast’ (and the new cult of failure, generally) is that it casts failure as something that you are a victim of, rather than something you actively partook in. Telling someone to embrace failure encourages victimhood.
Instead, as Stapleton says, it’s important to embrace resilience and the ability to bounce back from your mistakes. The goal shouldn’t be to glorify mistakes but to cultivate the ability to adapt and learn from them.
“People try and brush over really deep failures that don’t qualify as failing fast,” says Patrick McConnell, co-founder of the pay data startup Sliips. “If you’re doing failing fast properly, you’re measuring things. And then you should have the ability to change it quickly. You don’t want a too fatal mistake, either.
“Where the problem comes in for me, from what I hear, is people hide all sorts of horrible things under failing fast. They’re not measuring anything. It’s just ‘oh, we tried that and it didn’t work’. It’s not scientific, that’s not the true failing fast. You have to be vigorous about it. It has to be controlled failure.”
As Adrian Harvey notes, channelling Kenny Rogers, it’s important to know “when to hold them and know when to fold them”. The intentions of valorising failure are perhaps pure. “The phrase is undeniably stupid but, and here is the but, the sentiment though has merit in context,” says Harvey. “For sure, if you are investing in a new startup, then you want to know you have invested in a wrong as soon as possible and stop investing good money after bad.
“In the past, I have done so and it enabled me to return more than 50% of the initial capital investment to shareholders - much to our credit in their eyes. It was the right call and once I knew we were flogging a dead horse, I didn’t need to empty the bank account.”
Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s acting in spite of it.
Harvey is right: investors don’t have time for circumspection. An intense fear of failure is clearly bad, and that is what mantras like ‘fail fast’ are attempting to mitigate.
“Our VC somewhat encouraged us to take this ‘prepare to fail’ mentality,” says Derry Holt, co-founder of Stormburst Studios.“Our initial ask was £150,000 investment to be spent over 12 months; they encouraged us to squash that £150,000 into six months and take further investment in the summer. Naturally, that comes with the risk of no follow on investment and so the failure of the company.”
Confronting failure in this way is the sine qua non of entrepreneurialism. But at the same time, it’s important not to trivialise failure, either. Too much of it is bad; devastatingly bad. “It would be massive. It would be huge,” says McConnell reflecting on what the failure of Sliips would mean to him personally. “Your startup becomes your life and your identity. I’ve put my heart and soul into it. If it all folded, it would affect how I see myself. It failing would mean I’ve failed.”
But as the probably apocryphal quote by Roosevelt goes: courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s acting in spite of it. Failure hasn’t stopped McConnell from pursuing his idea. Neither did it stop Harvey nor Stapleton.
“When Glencoe failed, I didn’t spend ages on a post-mortem,” says Stapleton, looking back. “I did look at what went wrong, but I looked at it from the perspective of what I was I going to do next. That spurred me up to do something new and that became Little Dish.”
Harvey has learned something similar. “When I was younger, I experienced failure personally and in my career and it nearly finished me off,” he says. “I had to take a good long hard look at myself. I decided that I was actually prepared to give what it takes to succeed and get back in the saddle.”
But failure, as much as it is inevitable, should be avoided where possible, says Harvey. “Failure is part of life and those that learn from it are always more effective people. But seeking failure simply to learn from it is a far dumber strategy than seeking success.”
Stormburst’s Holt prefers a healthy middle ground. “It should be more like ‘it’s okay to fail, but don't celebrate it. Take it on the chin, acknowledge it and learn from it,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s like standing in the middle of a rugby match with the ball, totally relaxed like ‘it’s okay to get to get tackled, it doesn’t hurt, I can just stand back up again’.
“All good saying that till someone breaks your back.”
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