‘Failure is grand’: the big, fat cliche that isn’t even true

Those now successful founders are not rushing to hire in people who made a mess of their previous companies

What they really mean is “go fail while one of our competitors has funded you, and come back to us when you have gained more experience”

Pat Phelan, founder of Trustev, one of Ireland's fast-growing start-ups, had an enjoyable rant last week on Twitter about the expansive Irish industry of self-titled start-up experts, mentors and advisers.

Many were offering their “professional” advice to young companies or other organisations yet had never run a company or had significant startup experience, much less success, he said. Others, more experienced and also more shark-like, were demanding significant shares in small companies to compensate their oh-so-busy time.

“Just ask how many exits they have, not what speaking engagements,” went one Phelan tweet. The whole comprised a fine, and accurate, set of observations that should be recalled by startups, event organisers, Government bodies and other organisations the next time they are seeking a speaker, an innovation adviser, a board member, a mentor, a resident entrepreneur.


The conversation it set off was darkly amusing. Entrepreneur James Galvin tweeted back: "There was an event in Dublin entitled 'How to Raise Money' – €750 to attend and it sold out. Have to applaud that." Indeed.


Another response noted how a certain type of speaker will throw together an event, pack it with wide-eyed entrepreneur hopefuls, and “make sure a slide says failure is grand”.

That made me laugh, because it is so pointedly true. These days, the moment at which a speaker introduces the “failure is admired” comment in a talk is the moment I walk out the door. We’ve then hit peak bull.

That got me thinking about how and why this notion of failure being something admired in Silicon Valley has turned into a big, fat cliche that isn’t even true.

It just isn’t. Not in the potentially catastrophic sense in which it gets understood by the inexperienced (that’s why anyone advocating young founders go forth and fail needs to be slapped).

Nor is it true in the sense in which it gets spouted like a mantra by entrepreneurs and successful founders who should know better (and surely do), and by – wait for it – venture capitalists.

Sure, you learn a lot from trying and failing. There’s even a series of FailCon conferences based around people discussing why their companies failed.

And yes, everyone has to get experience somewhere. But those now successful founders are not rushing to hire in people who made a mess of their previous companies. Trust me. “You burned through $20 million in venture capital in two years and the company’s stupid idea sank like a rock? We need you on our senior management team,” said no big-name chief executive, ever.

Which brings us to certain VCs who know a lot better yet still make the puerile “failure is grand” statement.

What they really mean is, “Go fail while one of our competitors has funded you, and come back to us when you have gained more experience, have much better ideas and are determined not to fail again.”

The arrogance and idiocy of the “failure is grand” platitude is this. First off, it is a licence to lose other people’s money. Someone – more than likely, a group including friends and family, as well as various angels and, perhaps, VC firms using the invested money of others’ – supported your vision. How nice that you believed you had nothing to lose by setting up a crappy company. But a lot of other people who funded you had something to lose, which they did. Grow up.

Second, failure is not, of itself, an admirable sign of creative resilience just waiting to be given another opportunity. That’s why VCs will not rush to fund a former failure, nor will companies rush to hire one, just because you blew it.

When people who should know better trot out that “failure” guff, what they really are talking about is intelligent risk. To be (eventually) successful, you must be someone who will take a calculated, considered risk, and believe passionately in its success – not what-the-heck failure. They are never talking about the right to be a thoughtless failure. Failure is not a chrysalis out of which bursts forth a glorious future success.


Ireland apparently has a lot to answer for, because the Valley figurehead for this cult of failure is none other than Samuel Beckett, and his lines from Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

It gets quoted a lot. How Beckett would have sniggered to think he is the standard bearer for hopeful entrepreneurs.

Slate's Mark O'Connell (a TCD graduate himself) wrote an excellent piece last year on the delicious absurdity of Samuel Beckett becoming Silicon Valley's life coach (iti.ms/1LwtNYf).

O'Connell quotes Beckett's advice to novelist Aidan Higgins: "Despair young and never look back."

Funny how that isn’t on any slides at start-up events yet.