OK, fail fast, but fail smart!

While on my way home from buying a lottery ticket today (I am sure to buy from the store that has sold the most winning tickets), I got to thinking about failure.  We've been hearing a lot about it recently:

Failure breeds success. Fail fast, Fail often, or fail early, but just fail!  That way, you can be sure VCs will respect you in the morning.

It is interesting to me that a concept that seems precise -- failure -- can actually have a variety of meanings.  A story passed around a campfire loses its original meaning because words have different connotations depending on context.

Failing fast, early and often without learning from your mistakes -- without a process for learning -- is merely falling flat on your face.  The cheer "failure breeds success" is a self-help gimmick, typically called by MLMers leaning upon metaphysical beliefs that have nothing to do with iterating toward success. One doesn't learn from failure per se, but rather from mistakes.   (Only "mistake fast" doesn't have the same ring to it.)

Compounded mistakes may lead to a business failing. I would never wish a failure of one's business on anybody.  (Or at least on any true entrepreneur.)    Though as Steve Blank said last night @startup2startup, the main reason businesses fail is due of a lack of customers. It is true that if your business is going to fail, you may want it to fail fast.  (Like before it's even started.  Hence customer development gut check #1.)

Otherwise, you don't really want your business to fail fast.  You don't want it to fail at all.

A product feature not implemented correctly?  "Fail fast" and fix the feature.

A buyer who doesn't have budget for your product?  "Fail fast" and find a different customer.

A landing page form with high abandonment?  "Fail fast" and fix the form.

A VC who advocates hiring CEOs with a good track record of failure. "Fail fast" and invest your funds elsewhere.

Can we change the mantra to Fail fast, fail smart?

4 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “OK, fail fast, but fail smart!”

  1. Bill Allred May 1, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Good point – it’s the right kind of failure that allows for iterative improvement. I wrote something on the topic a while back: http://bit.ly/mQdmR

  2. Jindo Fox May 2, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Amen — anything else is “gambler’s fallacy” — the belief that if you have a long run of bad luck, things simply have to turn around and get better.

  3. Robert Frankliln May 2, 2009 at 8:11 pm


    Long time no speak my office sharing mentor! My mantra has been changed to Fail Smart! Well done.

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