If there’s one thing that has come through to me really clearly from this trip to Silicon Valley it is that failure is the key to success here. If you don’t fail you won’t succeed. So what does that actually mean and how can we all learn from that attitude?
We have visited many companies on this trip from the size and experience of Adobe in San Jose through to Maxwell Power run by Alex an inspiring 15 year old boy in a cubicle at Plug and Play Centre accelerator in Sunnyvale. Almost every company we have visited has mentioned failure at some point, the things that have gone wrong as well as the things that have gone right. The trialing of ideas and the failure of some of them along the way is an important ingredient in the mixture that proves time and again that the Bay Area is the best place to be an entrepreneur. It’s a really refreshing attitude here that I’ve not found elsewhere.
Last night I had a good chat with Brett Murray from Silicon Valley startup Swipp at a really great house party held by Redg Snodgrass in San Francisco. We were talking about how Swipp came about, the people involved and why it was working for them. Swipp have just received £3.5 million in venture capital funding and have an exciting product that they cannot yet talk about – “we can tell you in December”.
We were discussing the magic ingredients in the recipe for success that permeates Silicon Valley. A first topic was previous experience. Brett said if you are looking at a resume for someone in the Valley or looking at someone’s track record when thinking about whether you want to work with them, you really need to know that they understand and have felt failure as well as success. A resume that doesn’t include a balance of failures along with successes will go straight in the trash.
The thinking behind this is that if you have not known failure to a reasonable extent you will not know how to handle the problems that come up, and they will come up, as and when they occur. In the world of startups and entrepreneurship many problems will arise on the journey from idea to successful company. If you understand and have some experience of dealing with those problems when they occur you have a good chance of avoiding those same problems or at least handling them better when they come up again in the future. This is not an attitude that we are comfortable with outside of Silicon Valley. It is certainly not the experience that I have seen in the UK, but it completely makes sense. Without failure how can we learn?
Outside of the Valley we encourage entrepreneurs to succeed, but, if they get it wrong once, they are written off as failures. They don’t usually get another chance because they tried and they got it wrong. Shame on them. Failure in business is nasty and something to stay far away from.
Inside the Valley there is a culture of iterative failure on a path to success. You start one company, it doesn’t quite work out, you start another company, this time something else goes wrong. But, the people and companies around you carry on encouraging you to do better next time. Eventually you have the killer idea, you get the perfect team to work on it with you, you know how to deal with the multitude of problems that come your way and you end up with a successful company.
Outside of Silicon Valley we really need to learn this lesson and try to recreate this attitude and culture in the best way that we can. There are lots of great people with great ideas outside of Silicon Valley, but they are operating in an environment that is not conducive to optimum success. Of course some entrepreneurs will still make it through outside the Valley, some companies will get it right first time and grow through to be mature and successful. But think of all the opportunities missed, the innovation and economic growth that hasn’t happened.
It sounds counter intuitive, but I now I know how it works, I know it makes sense.
Failure is the key to success.