Failure Isn’t the Death of an Idea — It’s the Birth of a New Theory

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“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” — Thomas Edison

For most people, failure is culturally stigmatic. It symbolizes defeat and serves as recognition that an idea, action, or strategy was horribly miscalculated or, even worse, foolish. The internal manifestations of those failures are bad enough, but most folks fear the external ramifications even more. After all, self-loathing is one thing. Public shaming is quite another.

For the world’s greatest innovators, however, failure is often viewed very differently. It’s not a scarlet letter, or something to hide from or explain away. Instead, failure is an opportunity for learning, improvement, and iteration. It’s the result of progress — a necessary step on the path toward innovative enlightenment. Take Thomas Edison, who reportedly told Harper magazine in 1890:

“During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a discovery. All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple. I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable. Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved. This was the only possible way for me to work out the problem.”

Pay close attention to the bolded words. For Edison, invention was never a “lightbulb” moment. Instead, it was the result of a series of untenable theories and a catalyst for intellectual growth. In his eyes, the death of each theory simply represented the birth of another.

The Only Difference Between Failure & Success is Iteration & Resiliency

Success is never truly discovered over-night. It’s built on series of setbacks after setback, by people resilient enough to try again. Tweet this.

Today’s best tech entrepreneurs share the same perspective.

While we all love a good founding story, very few (if any) entrepreneurial successes are the result of a momentary stroke of brilliance. Instead, like Edison’s inventions, they’re the product of a series of experimentations — some successful, some colossal failures — that collectively spawn new ways of doing things.

This month, OpenView’s Labs team will be highlighting some of those failures (in March Madness bracket format), and exploring how the tech world’s biggest successes often come from seemingly irreconcilable failures. I highly recommend checking out the bracket, but I also thought I’d share two of my favorite examples here.

Mark Organ, founder of Eloqua and Influitive

While it will be remembered as an incredibly successful software company that pioneered marketing automation, the truth is Eloqua started off as a chat/messaging app geared toward financial services, insurance, and real estate companies. Founder Mark Organ and his team struggled to gain any traction with that focus, however, and they quickly realized that they had to pivot or go out of business.

By taking a scientific, iterative approach — validating/invalidating their hypotheses and being brutally honest with the data they got back — Organ soon discovered that the real excitement wasn’t around chatting, but in the ability to follow-up on leads via email. He and his team went back to the drawing board and decided to shift their go-to-market strategy to target companies who were desperate for lead gen (companies like themselves). The going was still tough (in fact, at one point Eloqua was just four days from going under), but the new focus eventually paid off, and in the process not only did Eloqua establish product-market fit, they did so while creating an entirely new category.

Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack and Flickr:

Butterfield may be a Silicon Valley darling now, but not everyone knows that both his successes — Flickr and more recently the potential $1B unicorn Slack — were only launched after failed attempts to create a massively multiplayer online game. Both times, Butterfield was forced to let staff go and find a way to salvage things with next to no time (or cash) left to work with.

Facing extreme limitations and a ticking clock, Butterfield’s teams were able to make huge pivots by plucking features they’d developed to support each of the games — a photo sharing platform (Flickr) and an internal chat system (Slack) — and spin them into standalone products. In both cases, being down to the wire pushed the teams to reign in all their efforts and hyper focus on one game-winning solution.

 

Those are just two examples from the bracket, but you’ll notice a recurring theme among all of the companies/entrepreneurs in the tournament: When they fell on their face — and many of them did in spectacular fashion — they didn’t dust the failure under a rug and act like nothing happened. They viewed the flops as an opportunity to learn, iterate, and make their next move.

The Secrets to Leveraging Failure: Context and Perspective

While it might not always be obvious, every company fails every day in some way.

Failed goals. Failed hires. Failed product features. Failed logo designs. Failed sales pitches. Whatever the case may be, failure is a fact of life in business. Sometimes, those failures are significant. Sometimes, they’re relatively inconsequential.

But the severity of those failures isn’t what really matters. What does matter is understanding why they happened and what can be learned from them. That approach is critical because it helps you determine the context of failure (was it caused by a singular, avoidable error, or was it the result of a larger systemic issue?) and respond appropriately. If it’s the result of one, easily correctable mistake, you need to resist the urge to overreact. If it’s indicative of a much larger issue, you need to act swiftly to find and fix the root cause of the problem.

Ultimately, every business action (whether it’s a new sales strategy, product feature, new marketing tactic, etc.) is, as Edison might say, a deductive step toward a new theory. Regardless of the goal, founders and their teams should strive to test, evaluate, learn, and iterate — and then start that cycle all over again. In this context, failure is irrelevant because the end result is progress.

Of course, following that process won’t guarantee success. But it will allow you to learn more from what didn’t work and leverage that insight to make smarter, more meaningful decisions in the future.

For more founder failure & recovery stories — and to vote for your favorite — see our Tech March Madness: Fail Fast Bracket

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Photo by Alicja Colon via Unsplash