When speaking to the conditions necessary for innovation, financial economist and venture capitalist Bill Janeway says, “Economic growth has been driven by successive processes of trial and error and error and error.” Failure is core to the innovation economy. It is taken as an article of faith in Silicon Valley vocabulary to “fail fast, fail often.”
A successful brainstorming exercise can be described as a process of throwing many ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. Inherent in that is an assumption that most ideas won’t stick. Venture capital funds invest in a large quantity of companies with the expectation that a substantive percentage of them will go bankrupt. Failure is a key ingredient of innovation. But something doesn’t add up.
I have failed numerous times in my career in technology. Dropping out of college was less of a triumphant moment and more of a shameful one. Shutting down a company was a statistic for the Kauffman Foundation, which indexes entrepreneurial activity in the U.S., but resulted in broken friendships, lost jobs and intimidating debts. But even the successes along that journey––raising millions of venture capital dollars, delighting tens of thousands of customers, growing our businesses––were chock full of insecurity, financial difficulty, and in some cases physical pain. What made it odd, most of all, was that it was very hard to admit to having failed. Everyone around me was “killing it’ and their businesses were “going viral” and their companies were “crushing it.” And everywhere I turned, panelists and speakers were talking about celebrating failure, and how important that is.
Failure may be necessary for innovation, but failure is not good. Celebrating failure, and claiming it as gospel, does a disservice to those who know it all too well; it leaves out those who are marginalized, underrepresented and often expected to fail. We need a reframing of the conversation. We need to tell our students, our entrepreneurs, our future innovators: failure is not good. But failure is okay. And to that point, we need to make failure okay.
Silicon Valley doesn’t not have a culture of failure. It has a culture of failure in the context of success. If you fail once, you haven’t failed forever. If you fail once, you can ultimately still succeed. This is an important nuance, and one that I know intimately. In the moments where I failed, my family, my peers, my investors, my bosses and my employees, retained a relentless optimism that things would work out eventually. In this way, the financial support, the emotional and psychological support and the relentless optimism of Silicon Valley is the key ingredient to our innovative success. In that context, “error and error and error” part of the “trial and error” is underwritten by the whole community. And those are the moments where we make things great.
Kanyi Maqubela is an investor and entrepreneur. He serves as Partner at Collaborative Fund, a venture capital firm investing in creative entrepreneurs who are pushing culture forward. He lives in New York City with his wife.