Accepting the culture of failure as life, not a trend

Many may see the culture of failure as a passing fad, but those who experience it everyday are trying to change the conversation and keep it in style.
Google failure, and you'll find articles like "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" or books called, "The Gift of Failure."

When only years ago, failure was something you worked to avoid, today failure is almost a badge of honor, especially for entrepreneurs. Founders tick off past businesses on their fingers and have memorized some of the most famous failures of well-known entrepreneurs.

Failure is in style. It seems to be celebrated. But, as with everything that goes in style, will it eventually go the way of bell-bottoms and shag carpeting? Is this culture of failure we are experiencing simply a passing fad that will eventually slink back into the shadows?
Not if the founders of Failure of Lab, an intimate evening showcasing stories of failure founded in Grand Rapids, and other entrepreneurs in the Grand Rapids community have anything to do with it. As the acceptance of failure expands from Silicon Valley into other entrepreneurial communities and into the mainstream, local entrepreneurs are finding the courage to speak about failure, why it's important, how to treat it, and the lessons they've learned from their own failures.

Failure Lab was created with the intention of bringing the failures that everyone hides into the light, sharing them, and learning from them. It's most recent event, held at Fountain Hill Church on May 12, featured stories of lost faith, career-ending injuries, and lost identities. But according to Jonathan Williams, cofounder of Failure Lab, it's not about focusing on those failures, it's about resilience and courage.

Jonathan Williams

When failure is brought into the light and discussed, the conversation changes. By using an entertaining format like Failure Lab to put failure front and center, Williams hopes that Failure Lab will change the attitude around failure and shift it from a black mark on your record to simply a fact of life. "It's not about being trendy," he says. "We aren't celebrating it, we are sharing the truth behind it."

The Failure Culture

And the truth behind it is that it happens every day, whether we acknowledge it or not. But when we don't, it becomes a shameful embarrassment we feel we need to hide. Older generations, says Williams, chose simply to ignore it. The newest generation entering the workforce, millennials, often don't even know how to fail.

According to Williams, "many millennials were raised to think they couldn't fail, so they were never taught to deal with it." And, as opposed to other cultures around the world that either completely hide it or shame people for failing, in America, Williams says, we blame. "It's always someone else's fault." This is one of the lessons that Failure Lab's training modules have taught both in the workplace and universities. Williams tells the story of one student who wept in front of 60 other students when he realized he'd been blaming his professors for his failures his entire college career.
This same generation, and the generation following it, are also faced with a new way of communicating that highlights the positive aspects of our lives and ignores the negative. As social media becomes one of the biggest forms of communication, those using Facebook and Twitter are constantly faced with only the best of their friends’, family's and coworkers' lives. This constant feed of positivity makes it even harder to admit when we fail, whether it's in our personal or professional lives.

Milton Moore, Founder and CEO of IP Consulting, a consulting firm that specializes in the design, rapid procurement, implementation, and support of highly secure computer networks, feels that the way reality shows like Shark Tank present the entrepreneurial process offer a skewed version of failure and success. "You have an idea, you present it, and you either make it or you don't," he says. "It cheapens the experience of those who actually spent 10, 15, 20 years building and investing in their idea."

Milton Moore

And Moore knows that during those 10-20 years you can fail a lot. "Things hardly ever turn out like you think they will," he says after ticking a few businesses off his own fingers. He knows failure will happen, but he also knows, "You need to have a plan b, c, and d. You'll get a lot of bad bounces but you need to be ready to run when you get a good one." Moore's good bounce, his company that is now on the Inc. 5000 list for the third year in a row, only came after he applied the lessons he learned from past failures.

Ann Vidro, co-founder and CFO at Creative Studio Promotions, a full-service promotional resource providing promotional, branded items for businesses, sees the culture around the "fail fast" motto as an opportunity to quickly discover the failure you are bound to uncover. "It's out there," she says. "You just have to discover it, because success is beyond it." But, while she understands the idea, she also adds that when you uncover it, you need to ask yourself what kind of failure it is. "Is it a blip in the radar or is it truly a door slamming shut?"

Ann Vidro

Facing Failure

When Vidro was fired via fax, she didn't feel good about it. "There were tears," she says, "and a year without a paycheck." But it was the jump she needed to start her own business.

Moore had to close the doors on multiple businesses before finding success, on some for which he had borrowed money from family to start. And they weren't just businesses he ran from his basement, he says. "They were all businesses where I had employees or I had a partner."
Both Moore and Vidro faced moments when they had to decide whether their failures were blips, or doors slamming shut. And in many cases, there were definitely doors slamming shut. But it was how they treated the failures that eventually led to their future success.

While there were quite a few days Vidro wondered if she should go back to corporate America and resume her career as a successful CFO in a large company, for her, that step back would have been the real failure. Instead, she did what she suggests others should do when faced with a failure they're unsure of; only days after she was fired, she reached out to a trusted advisor for advice: her cofounder's father, who was fired along with her. And she reached out to former clients hoping they would follow them, and made the most of a bad situation.

Branded drinkwear from Creative Studio Promotions

When Moore went back to corporate America after he dissolved a consulting firm he just couldn't get off the ground, it may have seemed like a step back, but to him, it was strategic. He'd decided he would only go back to one of two companies, either Microsoft or Cisco. When he was offered both jobs, he chose to take the opportunity at Cisco knowing it was not a permanent move. "I knew I had to take a step back." Moore then used his time in that position to learn and grow and build contacts, knowing he was building a safety net for his future.

The treatment of failure as a step forward is ultimately what Williams and the founders of Failure Lab were looking to highlight when they started the program.

"The point," says Williams, "is to push back on the stigma, the isolation, and fear around failure and create a conversation." And, while Moore and Vidro both learned valuable lessons from their individual failures, if they were speaking at Failure Lab, they wouldn't be able to share those lessons. Instead of asking the speaker to share their lesson, the Failure Lab founders ask the audience to listen to their story and then look inward, gleaning their own lesson from the stories they've heard.

Basking in Failure

Not sharing their redemption story after sharing a failure may be one of hardest aspects of Failure Lab for many, but it's one of the most valuable details of the event, and of failure in general.

"It's hard to sit in uncomfortableness," says Vidro, "especially when you're not feeling good or worthwhile." But the lessons learned in that exact spot are what ultimately lead to success. "I think we sometimes skim over [failures] too quickly," she adds referencing the "fail fast" motto. "I wonder if that moment or that lesson gets lost."

As her business grew and Vidro and her partner found success in their new venture, it was quickly obvious they weren't impervious to more setbacks. When they tried to expand and launch a new branch, there came a point when they had to admit it wasn't taking off. They'd announced the transition to the public and Vidro said this made it harder to admit defeat.

"There's shame there. You want to cover up with a blanket and hide away for a while." But, in the long run, she says, that fear (of failure) keeps you on your toes. "Things happen, and you're naive to think they won't. You can't get over-confident or arrogant," she adds. Sitting under that blanket and letting the failure sink in is the only way to make sure that, while you might fail again, it won't be in the same way.

Moore tries to avoid making the same mistakes by using each failure as a learning experience. After each setback, he performs a "lessons learned" exercise. He asks himself what he could have done better and what mistakes he made. "I see failure as paying my dues," he says. He never had the idea that the first thing he did would turn into gold. Though, Moore says, "I've always had a belief that I would ultimately succeed." This doesn't mean he knows how to avoid failure, it simply means he knows how to use it to his advantage and each repossessed car or apartment he was evicted from is worn like a badge of honor.

Today, IP Consulting has been in business for 11 years and has a second office in DC where they do a lot of federal business.

Creative Studio Promotions has been in business for five years and is part of Inc. 500's Fastest Growing Independent Businesses. "We love, love, love what we do," says Vidro, but knows she wouldn't be doing it if she had let the negative stigmas surrounding failure get the best of her. "By seeing the stories of those that have failed, you can expect it and change the expectation of being perfect."

As Failure Lab pushes through its sixth year, Williams wants the lessons of the speakers to reach past entrepreneurs and business ventures because, he says, "I don't care what you're starting, whether it's a marriage or school or a business or a painting, you're still fighting yourself and your doubts."

And, as long as people are starting new ventures, whether business or personal, they are always likely to fail. So, while the acceptance of failure may seem like a passing fad, if the folks behind Failure Lab and the entrepreneurs out there building businesses can change the conversation, the culture of failure will become, simply, our culture.

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Read more in the series here. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the editor of this series, Allison Spooner, on Twitter or e-mail her at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio and courtesy of Milton Moore.