Techies, CEOs, founders and social innovators gathered in Bengaluru this week to discuss the different types of failures, their impacts, and tips for bouncing back.
Much has been written about entrepreneur ideation, product development, scaling, fundraising and impact. But a number of startup founders and social entrepreneurs have faced failure in their journey, which are instructional but do not get as much media attention as success stories.
Eight entrepreneurs gathered at Amani Institute’s Fail Faire Bengaluru in 91Springboard this week to present how they experienced failure, and what others may learn from their stories. "Nobody wants to fail, but you have to be willing to fail if you want to be an innovator,” said Roshan Paul, founder of the Amani Institute, kicking off the event.
See also my write-up on the TiE Bangalore panel ‘Exit Plan B: Best Practices for Winding Down your Startup.’ Fore-warned is fore-armed, and such events play an important role in helping entrepreneurs understand what challenges could lie ahead when things fail.
A number of authors have also addressed the role of failure in the innovation journey; see my book reviews of Adapt, The Up Side of Down, The Wisdom of Failure, Fail Better, Fail Fast, and Failing to Succeed.
Here are my takeaways from the three-hour gathering, which was organised as a series of TED-style talks. Similar events have been held by Amani in Kenya and Brazil as well.
1. Product failure is not team failure
Mekin Maheshwari, Founder, Udhyam Learning Foundation, was formerly Chief People Officer at Flipkart, and earlier headed its PayZippy and e-books offerings. One of the e-tailer’s products for digital music was the Flyte music store, launched in 2012, after acquiring digital content platform company Mime360 in 2011.
But Flyte had to be shut down in 2013 for a number of reasons related to content licence fees, low internet penetration and speeds in India, and unwillingness of consumers to pay for music when free alternatives like YouTube were available, explained Mekin.
“We launched a music app and even a music anthem against digital piracy. Users were sampling the music – but not buying,” Mekin recalled. It was a sad, emotional ending for the product, and a farewell party was held on 21 June, 2013, in Sathya’s Pub in Koramangala.
“Focus on understanding the broader market environment and not just the inputs,” Mekin advised, as lessons from the product failure. Internally, the Flyte team developed great capabilities, and they succeeded in other roles in Flipkart and elsewhere.
“Don’t bet against the market,” said Mekin. Just as there is much more to a student than the marks in the final exams, so is a team’s passion, learning and experience that are contributions of the journey even if there is failure at the end.
Flipkart carried on experimenting with a number of other products, and went on to make history with its deal with Walmart, announced on the very day that Mekin was speaking at Fail Faire 2018.
“Today is a happy day for Flipkart,” said Mekin. He himself is now a board member at 1Bridge (founded by Madan Padaki), and an angel investor in 10 startups.
2. It is easier to talk about failure after the act than while failing
The benefit of hindsight and retrospection is that you can calmly assess your past failures, and extract useful lessons from them. But it is very hard to do so when you are actually going through a failure, explained Edith Elliott, Co-founder and CEO, Noora Health.
Social entrepreneurs have a lot to gain from disciplines like design thinking, said Edith, who was a design innovation fellow and entrepreneurship instructor at Startup Garage, Stanford Graduate School of Business. However, innovators fail when they find out that a well-designed product or service may still not be wanted by target customers.
Another reason for failure is not being able to handle the problems of scale. The unit economics may not work out, or quality of the offering drops. “Learn how to say no, don’t just jump in to sign on new deals. Keep a hyper-focus on quality,” advised Edith.
At such times, it is important to acknowledge that failure could be a possibility, and to ask for help to avoid looming failure – but this can be really hard, cautioned Edith.
3. Failure should not derail a social movement
Pavitra Chalam, Founder and Director of Curley Street Media, shared the emotional story behind her documentary film ‘Rooting for Roona.’ It focused on the fight for the health of the Indian child, and features the moving story of the baby, Roona Begum, who was born with hydrocephalus (a congenital condition also known as 'water on the brain’).
Though Roona unfortunately passed away, the movement for better health for Indian babies must and will carry on, said Pavitra. Over 1.7 million babies born in India every year have health defects. Failing to keep Roona alive should not lead to finger-pointing; instead it should gavlanise the society to fight for better health of its babies, urged Pavitra.
“We had invested beyond our capacity in her life and on her survival. This was a profound loss for us. The anchor of this movement had suddenly ceased to exist,” she said. “When we started out we needed Roona to live for this movement to gain momentum. Now all we need is for her story to never be forgotten,” Pavitra said.
4. Socio-economic divides also cause failure patterns
T Pradeep, Founder of SAMUHA, explained that there are broader socio-economic contexts that also contribute to failures in social sector organisations. For example, some of the organisation’s recommendations for intake of nutritious food for malnourished children in North Karnataka were less accepted by some communities because they were seen as 'cultural' food that only some castes ate regularly.
“We have been looking at failures for over 30 years,” Pradeep said. Another anecdote he shared was how canal irrigation improved the economy in some districts, leading donors to lose interest in nutrition problems, though malnourishment continued to persist.
“Many parts of India are still in the pre-market stage, and the government should not abdicate its responsibility. Otherwise, this may lead to problems like unsustainable debt,” he cautioned.
Notable impacts can be achieved in the development sector by appropriate use of emerging technologies such as analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and cloud platforms, Pradeep said. He has been instrumental in incubating organisations such as Mahiti (free and open source software), Jana Sahayog (for people living in slums), Suvidya (experiential mathematics), iSquareD (social enterprises), and Samarthya (for people with disabilities).
5. Focus on execution, not just the idea
Many social entrepreneurs succeed in the ideation and launch stage, but fail in sustainability and scale. Fiona Vaz, an Amani Institute Fellow and alumni of Teach for India, recalled her failed attempt to launch a school with three other teachers as co-founders.
“It is tough for leaders to follow each other. We could not come to a consensus on key issues, and did not know how to let go,” she explained. “I realised that teachers help students overcome failure and pass exams – teacher-entrepreneurs should do the same for themselves as well,” Fiona said.
“It is important for entrepreneurs to know what they want to do and why, to understand their purpose and domain,” she advised. But it is also important to understand the ‘how’ – the execution and operational aspects of entrepreneurship. “If you give yourself permission to fail, you give yourself permission to be free,” Fiona said.
6. Up-skill yourself to overcome failure
Sachin Malhan, former Executive Director of Ashoka Changemakers, founded the community-based platform Inclusive Planet to address the content needs of the visually impaired. Launched in 2008, it eventually gathered over 8,000 members. The platform received funding from 18 angel investors to the tune of Rs 5 lakh each. Unfortunately, the business model was not sustainable and the organisation had to shut down in 2012.
Sachin shared a number of lessons learnt: the importance of frugal innovation, ability to pivot, co-founder alignment, a culture of having tough conversations, and continually affirming commitment. “Failure accounts for the difference between what you should be doing and what you end up doing,” explained Sachin.
Some cognitive causes of failure can be handled by increasing capability. But up-skilling and emotional strengths are needed in dealing with lack of clarity, fear of failure, and a sense of compulsion.
This failure has not deterred Sachin’s entrepreneurial spirit – his next startup is HumLab, which aims to find, develop and scale transformative ideas in the legal industry, law and justice.
7. Failure as a wise teacher
UX designer Fazil VN founded a number of startups in the design and gaming space, such as W3Graphix, Appsud, and Sketchmonk.com. Some of them failed, but there are important gifts that failure brings, he explained.
“Failure keeps you grounded. It forces you to find a bigger thing to fail at. Failure makes you grow,” said Fazil. Failure forces you to find smart people to work with, who can help you take on the next set of challenges.
“Failure is the wisest grandparent,” Fazil joked. If you have the courage to overcome and speak about it, failing a lot also helps you give funny talks about failure, he added.
8. Failure and humour
This advice on humour in failure was superbly illustrated by Dr Jagdish Chaturvedi, ENT surgeon, medical device innovator and stand-up comedian. “I was born in Bangalore, raised in traffic,” he began.
He went on to recall a number of his failures right from school days, such as using the title ‘Mistress’ instead of ‘Mrs’ while introducing the chief guest’s wife at the school’s annual day function. “The opposite of success is not failure. Failure is just a chance to try again till you succeed,” Jagdish said.
“Nobody is jealous of a failure, you have no competition. People don’t hate you, they just pity you and want to help you,” he joked. Jagdish has even written a book called The Benefits of Failing Successfully: 10 Hidden Benefits of Making Mistakes and Failing, with ten anecdotes of failures and lessons learnt.
Being a stand-up comedian also teaches you a lot about what failure can teach you, he added; he has a book on this topic, as well as a number of YouTube videos. “Fail cheap, fail fast, and fail first,” Jagdish summed up.
The event ended with a cake being awarded to the best failure story (Fiona Vaz), and cupcakes as a consolation prize to other speakers. The organisers had posted a number of inspiring quotes about failure lessons on the walls of the venue; it would be appropriate to end this write-up with some of these quotes.
There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period. - Brene Brown
Mistakes are the portals of discovery. - James Joyce
Success is not the absence of failure; it’s the persistence through failure. - Aisha Tyler
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. - Henry Ford
The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success. - Paramhansa Yogananda
I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying. - Michael Jordan
It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. – Bill Gates
Many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up. - Thomas Edison
Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success. - CS Lewis
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. - Paulo Coelho
The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure. - John C Maxwell
When we tackle obstacles, we find hidden reserves of courage and resilience we did not know we had. And it is only when we are faced with failure do we realise that these resources were always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives. - APJ Abdul Kalam