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Fail Early

You've probably heard it before that you should "fail early and fail often" but should you really?

I saw this Nike commercial with Michael Jordan talking about how much he had failed in his career and this got me thinking about the debate of whether or not entrepreneurs should “fail early, fail often” as the saying goes. A quick Google timeline shows how popular this term has grown in our vernacular over the past two decades. No doubt following the trend of high tech entrepreneurial failures.

Digging deeper into some of the more popular entrepreneurial technology bloggers, I found one of the earliest references to failing early from Jeff Atwood from Coding Horror. In May ’06 he stated:

“The best software developers embrace failure — in fact, they’re obsessed with failure. If you forget how easy it is to make critical mistakes, you’re likely to fail. “

And Jeff continues in the same post:

“I say the more failed projects in your portfolio, the better. If you’re not failing some of the time, you’re not trying hard enough. You need to overreach to find your limits and grow. But do make sure you fail in spectacular new ways on each subsequent project.”

Next up that same year in September, Matt from Signal Vs. Noise, the 37Signals blog, quoted Jonathan Ive, VP of Industrial Design, Apple:

“Getting Real is all about iterations too. “Be excited to be wrong because then you’ve discovered something new” is a neat way to put it (btw, so is Fail early, fail often).”

Fast forward to February 2009, Jason, also from Signal vs. Noise states:

“It’s true: Everything is a learning experience. Good and bad, there’s something to be learned. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.”

Hmmm, it seems like there has been a change in attitude towards failure. As a final example we have Matt from Signal vs Noise again in December 2009 stating:

“The idea that you should “fail early, fail often” is bogus. Plans are guesses. Interruption is the enemy of productivity”

What are we to make of this change in advice from some of the most popular names in entrepreneurial advice? Well this study from Harvard published in 2008 might explain some of it. In it the authors claim that entrepreneurs with a track record of success are much more likely to succeed than first-time entrepreneurs or those who have failed before. The primary reason for this is that the successful entrepreneurs exhibit persistence in selecting the right industry and time to start new ventures.

“… all else equal, a venture-capital-backed entrepreneur who succeeds in a venture (by our definition, starts a company that goes public) has a 30% chance of succeeding in his next venture. By contrast, first-time entrepreneurs have only an 18% chance of succeeding and entrepreneurs who previously failed have a 20% chance of succeeding.”

Alas don’t give up hope for redemption from failure, the study does show entrepreneurs who have previously failed have a slightly higher subsequent success rate than first-timers, suggesting that they learn something from their failure.
My take on all this failure talk is that both camps are correct, depending on the magnitude. Failing on small things like a wrong product feature should be done early and often because no matter how much you think you know your users, you nor they know exactly how or what they will use in the future. But you should avoid if at all possible failing on the big things like a product line. These large failures take too much time, energy, and resources that can never be recouped. If you do happen to fail big you can at least take comfort from the fact that there is something to be learned. And that lesson is to fail at the small stuff so that you don’t fail at the big stuff.