Notes from FailCon: Why #Fail Could Be Your Biggest Catalyst for Growth

We work and live in a startup culture that prizes money, funding, success over things like failure, which is actually one of the most important things that can happen to a founder or a developer.

This blog post was written by Douglas Crets, Community Manager for Microsoft BizSpark. For information on how you can get free software and support from Microsoft, visit our BizSpark pages.

Fail is perhaps the most important ingredient in success, because in failing we find the seeds of our transformation. This is something that Carl Jung learned and wrote about in his famous Red Book, during nearly a decade of separation from the teachings of Sigmund Freud, the onset of World War I, and the tangible and sickening anxiety caused by a nearly global transition of countries and cities into the modern era.  

And it's something that the leading innovators of the current day go through before they invent, make or develop some of the objects and services we consider essential in our lives. We can forget that, when so much of what we read and experience seems to be about the finished product. This lesson was starkly presented at FailCon this week in San Francisco. FailCon is a really interesting cultural experience of failure, presented by Cass Phillips, founder. It's a way of getting people to focus on the seeds of success, rather than to think about and glorify only those who have succeeded. Here are a few notes from that event, which highlight this lesson. I feel strongly that other founders and developers should take away ideas from these notes. It's one of the things that make working on a startup fun, in hindsight. No glory without struggle, as they say. 

Suneel Gupta, VP of Product Development, Groupon

First we hear from Suneel Gupta, VP of Product Development at Groupon. Yes, so Groupon is apparently struggling, when it comes to stock price, but there's an untold story here. First of all, how many buzz-worthy startups have IPO'd in the past three years? How did they get to a public offering? What did they learn along the way? What role did Suneel play in making sure the teams put together a great product? How did they iterate in the runup to the IPO and what lessons did they have to learn in order to push something out that people felt enough confidence in that they invested what they did? 

Key points:

Bullets are easy to hide behind

It's hard to stop to actually put down a creative concept on paper, but it’s also a really important thing to do. It gives you ownership of the idea, it creates a tangible connection to what you want to get out the door. 

You need the right team, time to get something done.

Go slow. Your minimal viable product should be like the tip of the iceberg. But about 1/3 of what you want out there, and that is where you start. “We made a fundamental mistake and we went after all of this at once,” says Suneel. After being excited about seeing features and an end goal, “We tried to build all the products, when we thought about minimal, we thought about quality.” Taking half of those features, and making those features fantastic is actually the right thing to do, even when your engineers are so gung ho about what they love building that they don't want to stop. 

Don’t go down a vortex of time. You really want to get to your next act.

Don't forget about the ‘art of the question,’ learn that asking great questions leads you to a better and better product. Don't assume that you know what is good for your consumer or user group. You don't. They do, though. The excellent question gives you the right data and the right feedback to make something amazing. 

As a developer, a founder, or someone on the product team, you have to constantly ask, "Do we go after ideas and questions that only solidify what we already know? Or do we pursue things that tell us what we don’t know? A user experience will tell you about what startups do for people, but most startups stop at this point of getting data. They need to listen to the data that tells you that the hypothesis is wrong."  Suneel points to asking great questions, but also really paying close attention to user interaction. He points to a focus group where Groupon engineers and product managers asked users to tell them answers to questions and to narrate their experience of the new product iteration, but, in a fascinating turn of events, they paid close attention to what the users were actually doing when they talked about what they were doing. They were often doing something opposite and experiencing less experience than what they said they were doing and experiencing. Take note, developers, your users are your biggest fans, but they may be telling fibs to themselves! 

On this user experience over narrative: “It’s something that I under-indexed on” says Suneel.

Groupon created Rewards using some of this interactive testing, and they made it as a way to make people more loyal to the business, not to Groupon, in the hopes that that loyalty to the shopping experience consumers want to build loyalty with would also create loyalty to Groupon. 

 Build something to fail fast and to let something go

 When do you step back and refactor your own code base vs. continuing to move quickly. (what is the actual pressure to move fast?). Says Suneel: “It was probably the best move we could have made” to hold off on adding new features.


Gina Bianchini, founder of startups MightyBell and Ning

Then we had perhaps the most candid and entertaining fail talk of the day, by Gina Bianchini, who talked eloquently and transparently about Ning and MightyBell, and what's she's learned from seeking and gaining funding. 

Here's what she said was important:

We have the notes from our time there under the video. 

Find the small moments, plan ahead, and

Most of the colossal failures find their seeds in small moments when decisions could have been made within the focus of the fundamental values of the vision.

What was actually the most important circumstances for her most amazing and thoughtful moments? It was not the stuff that made her think, "I'm a f***ing genius." It was, she says, “The things that were the throwaway moments – oh, f--- we really have to fix this…things you do because you just do them – turn out to be the best ideas ever.”

“You never know where good ideas come from. You have to stay open to people’s feedback, people’s reactions, people’s questions, to the things you build or believe in, and also know when to drive or to adjust.” 

Her major lesson from NING was that working with communities gathered around interests, passion and goals has sustained her more than anything else:  “I have never seen a more powerful driver of change, of real connection, and I have met some of the most amazing people online, and I just fundamentally enjoy it. I did not know that before NING.”

"You can’t do things without a small group of people who you can be real with”

“I don’t want to go to one of those conferences where everyone is just standing around…drinking from the fire hose of success.” This made me laugh out loud, because it really is true. I don't find a lot of feelings of association around people who believe that they have succeeded or that they are constantly succeeding. For me, those people sound like they are aspiring, and the problem with aspiring, is that despite all the talk about being in the present moment, they are really stuck both in the past and in the future, spending a lot of time drawing energy out of the past and forecasting information into the future. I want to know just how things really are. What makes you real? I am certainly carrying around a backpack full of real  and it's not all pretty, and sometimes I really question my success. All I think is important is, "Am I happy?" Have I helped other people to be happy? Do I add to their day? 

Gina moved on and said something very important. Her focus was on what has been made for the market, and she said, young, white guys are really too much the bulk of the people deciding the output of tech and products / services for the market.  “A lot of stuff is built for a world where there are no chicks in it. And winning teams going forward are going to be paying more attention to gender intelligence and having men and women on teams," she said.

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