I recently read the New York Times article about the conferences celebrating failure and I had to laugh. It reminded me of the line from Jon Stewart’s unforgettable tribute to Bruce Springsteen:
“And I never again felt like a loser. . . When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser, you are a character in an epic poem about losers.”
People who fail don’t want to be failures, they want to be characters in an epic poem about failures. Being one of a large number of people who have failed depersonalizes the failure and eases the pain. It makes it ok to have failed. It becomes easier to say “it wasn’t my fault”, “it happens to many people”, “it is all about good luck and bad luck.” The Times article comments that “ failure has been significantly destigmatized on a cultural level in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, even though on an individual level it can still be painful to endure.” Damn right – except that the personal level is where it really matters.
Bottom line is that failure is personal, lonely, and isolated. The reason why failure is so personal is because people fail in different ways and every person takes something different from the experience of failure.
Many of our entrepreneurs are in their late thirties or forties. In most cases, these folks have faced a setback or two in their fifteen years or more as professionals. When CEOs go through their personal histories, one of the things I probe for is an understanding of such setbacks, a willingness to discuss, acknowledge, and personalize the setback, and some real introspection into what they took away from the experience. It doesn’t have to be a failed business, it could be a poor career move or a failed marriage. I look for places where people have had to hunker down and work hard just to keep a ship afloat. I worry when people have not yet had a setback because I am concerned that they might experience this for the first time as an Osage CEO, and that can be expensive learning.
When I was CEO of Verticalnet, we went through some hard times as we transformed the business. It is a challenge to turn around a small, undercapitalized, technology company in the public company limelight and even harder when, having been an internet highflyer, most people’s reactions to the fact that I was CEO of Verticalnet was “didn’t Verticalnet disappear years ago?” After a couple years as CEO, I had friends of mine who felt they were looking out for my career path tell me that this role was doing nothing for me, that I had done the public CEO thing, and I should leverage it to find my next job. To me, leaving then would have been failure. It would have been the easy way out, and it would have broken my commitments to my investors, employees, customers, and board. Even though getting to a good outcome was harder than I expected and took longer than I had planned, it was the right thing to do. I learned more about business and about people and about myself in riding the Verticalnet rollercoaster. If it had been all easy sailing, I would have learned less. If I had walked away because it was proving too hard – I also would have learned much about myself, but I would not have liked those lessons.
We meet many entrepreneurs in our business and we always start with personal history. Many times the people we meet are repeat entrepreneurs. When discussing their past efforts, I want the details – What happened with the business? What was your role through the business cycle? Did you raise money? Did the business exit? Why did you leave? Did you return capital to investors? What would your previous investors say about you? Most importantly, what did you learn? If your personal history is filled with fast failures where you left a leadership role shortly after recognizing that you weren’t piloting a rocket ship, then you would be best to go elsewhere for capital – you are not a good fit with Osage. If instead you stuck with it, brought the damaged plane in for a crash landing, did what you could for your people, your customers, and your investors and learned a ton along the way about business, about people, and about yourself, then welcome to Osage. We would love to hear about your next gig. Let’s celebrate learning. Let someone else write an epic poem about losers.