The art of failure


If you think about it, there are very few areas of human endeavor where failure is a good thing.

A restaurant that satisfies only half of its customers will only be in business a few months at best. An auto mechanic who only fixes 80 percent of the cars sent to her will soon be out of business. And a surgeon who is only successful on 90 percent of his operations will soon be facing steep legal costs. 

In fact, the bar for success is so high in many industries that even a failure rate of 10 percent is considered too high. The Net Promoter score, commonly used by businesses to see how well they’re meeting the demands of customers, is designed to get scores of at least 9 out of 10. If there’s not a 90 percent chance that a customer would recommend your business to someone else, you’re doing something wrong.


Industrial business must be more successful than that – when they adopt Six Sigma methodologies, they are looking for 99.99966% success rates. That is, they only tolerate 3.4 defect features per million opportunities. That leads to some fantastically engineered products.

But, yet, there are some areas where failure is not only accepted as part of the game, it’s actually welcome. Think of the professional baseball hitter in America, who only has to be successful 30 percent of the time to be considered worthy of the Hall of Fame – the act of hitting a baseball is that hard! Or, think of the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who only needs to hit a home run on 1 or 2 out of every 10 investments to make a very tidy after-tax income.

Fortunately, social media is one of those areas where failure is not only accepted, but also embraced. The reason is that you can continually update your social media campaigns on the fly. You can A/B test over and over again, to see which headlines are working, and which are not. And you can try platform after platform, to see what sticks. And, in the case of Silicon Valley, you can actually try business model after business model, to see what works, in what is popularly known as “the pivot.”


But it takes a very special mentality to embrace that type of failure. Think about it – most of us in our everyday lives are deathly afraid of failure. We do everything possible to hide any sign of weakness. But that keeps us from trying things that just might work. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously referred to this as the art of “breaking things.” - And most recently he’s seriously broken them ; ) -You have to be willing to break things if you want to succeed, “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”

But moving fast and breaking stuff is harder than it sounds. Bob Maiden, founder of a startup business plan competition and an experienced entrepreneur, has analyzed why so many startups fail. It’s not due to a lack of funding or a lack of vision. Instead, he suggests that startups fail because founders are unable to make the leap from “pre-customer” startup to “post-customer” business. In short, entrepreneurs fail to transform into business owners. They fail to transform “chaos” into “structure.” 

You can think of this as the inability to fail in a good way. Entrepreneurs are good at taking advantage of failure when things are chaotic, but less so once a business hits a certain plateau.


That’s why most business owners have such a hard time wrapping their heads around why failure can be a good thing.

However, even the most successful companies in Silicon Valley often experienced significant failure before finally breaking through.

Consider the example of YouTube, which by any standards, is now one of the most phenomenally successful social platforms on the planet. Yet, back in 2005, when YouTube first launched, it actually started out as a dating site. Yes, the company’s co-founders thought that it might be a good way for tech nerds to meet, via a quick video introduction. When that idea didn’t work out, they dug really deep to come up with a groundbreaking idea, and what they came up with was… a brief, poorly produced a guy at the zoo. 

Yes, the first-ever YouTube video featured the co-founder of YouTube, Jawed Karim, talking about the size of elephant trunks at the San Diego Zoo. It lasted all of 19 seconds, but it gained view after view. People liked it. And then the proverbial light bulb went off – maybe there was a market for short, funny, 60-second videos after all. From there, as they say, the rest was history.

YouTube is not the only social media disruptive startup to have started with modest beginnings. Think of Instagram, which by now is the second-most popular social network in the world, worth between $35-$40 billion at today’s valuations. When Instagram first started, there was no idea that people would actually be willing to join a social network based on sharing their photos.


In fact, Instagram was originally envisioned as a location-based check-in service when it first launched in 2010. And it wasn’t called Instagram – it was called Burbn (because the co-founder enjoyed bourbon). But, over time, the company’s two co-founders narrowed down the product to focus on only one feature: sharing photos with cool filters.

It’s this type of constant innovation and iteration that works in the social media space. That’s because social media is inherently social – and as with anything social, it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. Think of how long and hard Google has pushed Google Plus, networking site that launched with so much fanfare back in 2011. But it’s always been a ghost town – and that’s even with the backing of the most powerful Internet company in the world!

And that’s ultimately the difference between a 10-person startup worth $1 billion when it was acquired (Instagram) – and a 1,000-employee company worth $1 billion. You have so much more agility to experiment and constantly innovate -- and not just small, incremental changes, but big, radical, bet-the-company changes.

In fact, the best social media fails are those that are daring, that really push the envelope on what’s possible. In short, the best social media hacks are those that tap into the silly, quirky “elephant in the zoo” in all of us. And, as we’ll see in my next LinkedIn article, the one area where you can see that principle at work is in the sphere of the everything-goes viral video…

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