Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Silicon Valley Knows a Secret: It's Okay to Fail!


Right or wrong, there is a perception in the entrepreneurial/startup space that when looking for a place to start a technology business, there is Silicon Valley and then the rest of the country.  There is a commonly held belief, that most, if not all of the innovative and disruptive technologies being developed today come from roughly 1,500 square miles of northern California.  Perhaps the biggest question from the rest of the country is “Why?”  Sure, the Valley has a number of built-in advantages, including (in no specific order (i) a concentration of incredible research institutions; (ii) a robust job market; (iii) a highly skilled labor force; (iv) a well-established capital community; and (v) a pretty decent climate.  But other cities have many of these elements as well.  So the questions remains:  What makes Silicon Valley the hub of innovation and more importantly, how can the startup environment that has been built there be replicated in other cities?

In my role with Think Big Partners, I am fortunate enough to meet almost daily with incredibly sharp, incredibly talented and incredibly motivated entrepreneurs who are sure they are on track for building the next big thing.  Their enthusiasm and commitment to their idea/business is inspiring and one of the best things about being a part of an organization like Think Big.  While most of the entrepreneurs and a majority of the meetings are here in the Heartland, we have developed a very solid strategic partnership with several key players in Silicon Valley.  As such, I have had reason to interact on a relatively steady basis with some of the power players in the Valley over the past eighteen months.  In that time, I’ve noticed one very important aspect of the culture in the Bay area that does not exist here in Kansas City or in any of the other cities we work in.  It’s an attitude that is born out of entrepreneurial activity and one that is difficult to develop on your own.  The key ingredient:  IT’S OKAY TO FAIL!!

No one likes to fail.  No one sets out to fail.  For most of us, we are taught at a very early age that failure is bad.  Failure in school, failure in relationships, failure in sports.  All of it is terrible and something to be ashamed of.  In Kansas City and the rest of the country, the vast majority of business failures quietly fade away and the founders are doomed to years of humiliation and rejection.  No one wants to associate with a failure.  Yet somehow, that early life lesson seems to be nonexistent in the Valley.  

Some of today’s most powerful business leaders in Silicon Valley have also been the stewards of some spectacular failures.  Perhaps the most revered and famous failure of all, Steve Jobs, set the stage for today’s acceptance.  When Jobs was in his first go-around with Apple, he was very publicly and unceremoniously dumped by the Board of Directors.  Very few people who were paying attention to the tech world at that time were unaware of the humiliation heaped upon Jobs when he was sent packing.  But according to Jobs, it was a blessing.  At a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, Jobs said, “I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Jerry Kaplan and GO Corp., Marc Andreessen and Loudcloud, Bill Coleman and DEST Systems--the list goes on and on. These entrepreneurs wear their failures like a badge of honor.   We’ve met with a number of VC groups in Silicon Valley who will not invest in entrepreneurs who have not failed at least once.  It is often repeated mantra that if four out of five of your startups don’t fail, you are not being bold enough.

Now let’s be clear about the concept.  Failure by itself is not a predictor of future success.  Thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs have failed because they didn’t understand their business, they didn’t understand their market and/or they were simply not capable of launching a business.  What appears to be pervasive in Silicon Valley is the attitude that it is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.  Many of these spectacular failures provided the necessary learning curve that was essential for the future successes achieved by such entrepreneurs. While discussing a very accomplished business , a well-respected Valley entrepreneur recently said to me, “During their startup phase, [the company] did everything wrong, but they didn’t do it wrong for very long.”  They learned from their failures and after many years of struggling to break even, they are now a publicly traded behemoth.

The most important aspect of all of these examples is that the entrepreneurs didn’t read failure as an indication of their inability to succeed.  It was what it was; a failure of that product or service, in that market, at that particular time in history.  These entrepreneurs did not fold up their tents and go home, but rather, took the lessons learned in their failure and applied them to become better in the next go-round.

This is clearly something that can’t change overnight.  The fear of failure is a deeply-rooted attitude and one that will take years to change in both individuals and communities.  But it is obviously something that can be changed.  The advantage Silicon Valley has is not geographic or climatic (and thus unable to be replicated).  It is in large part, attitudinal and capable of evolving.  If our institutions, government, business, media and family can all begin to understand that failure is not a dirty word, and can come to embrace the educational aspects of failure, then the rest of the world can begin the process of emulating the startup culture of Silicon Valley.

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  1. Tyler, this is a GREAT post. I'd love to publish it on my blog. May I?

  2. Can you send me just some quick info on the blog you want to repost to?

  3. Of course:

  4. Maybe that wasn't what you were hoping for. My blog's focus is demonstrating how RAISING CLARITY gets folks out of the way of their own abundance in recognizing and acting on their calling. Right now I'm writing a series about time--beyond time-management, we call it "time-sculpting." Today's post featured Peter Bregman. Thank you for letting me know, Tyler, and for your visionary founding of Think Big which I look forward to getting to know in Baltimore. (I'm signed up but I think they haven't sent anything out in a while.) My branding specialist in KC told me about you Think Big folks there!

  5. Thanks for clarifying--that sounds great. Please feel free to republish and enjoy the content. If you could link to Think Big Partners ( within the post, we would appreciate it!

    Thanks for Thinking Big!

  6. Of course! Thank you so much for your work and your own big thinking, Rob.

  7. Rob? Who's Rob? What was I thinking?
    OK...wanted to let you know your post goes live on my blog this Wednesday, thank you, and let you know I've sent two stellar people your way for THINK BIG Baltimore, and signed up as an ambassador for it.

  8. Tyler, would love to connect with you about Think Big Baltimore. Call me? Or let me know how is best by sending me an email:


  9. I loved reading this piece! Well written!

    Merlen Hogg
    ms polymer