I was recently asked to deliver a keynote to a group of entrepreneurs and startup people who were gathered at Boost Turku to both celebrate and understand failure in the context of building startups from the ground zero. As usual, I didn’t practice as I am not a professional speaker and can’t spend time to rehearse or plan my occasional and rare speaking engagements.
I began by defining what I personally think a failure is. I define a failure as a vital and the most basic unit of learning new things, walking uncharted paths and understanding on the world around and inside us. In order to fail, a clear objective or goal needs to be defined. Failure is also highly perceptional against the goals and expectations set by yourself, people around you, peers here and there, and the society as a whole. Failure is more an event and thus time-bounded rather than an ongoing state. For instance, if one sets his goals to die at some point in time, it is for sure that the goal will be achieved. A perception of one’s failure has lot to do with one’s own world view as well as the culture of the surrounding society. Culture change takes generations but internal world view can be changed faster though even that is super difficult.
From this philosophical beginning I moved 15 years back in time when I was the first time CEO in a Turku based Viola Systems. I made countless mistakes. I also surrounded myself with people that I thought to have been best in their own disciplines. Naturally, I didn’t have knowledge and experience to actually evaluate or quantify their true level or expertise and leaned more on the perceived brand value.
Regardless I compared my own abilities against the best person in my universe in each particular dimension. And guess what? I always came second. For a perfectionist and super competitive and obsessioned person like me, it didn’t feel that great at all. In many of these dimensions, like financial engineering back then, I wasn’t even mediocre. So, then what?
It is crucial that a CEO is not too hard at herself because that will serve no purpose. Being too hard on oneself has an ability to destroy a person’s mental and physical health forever. I guess it is Mårten Mickos who has said or quoted someone else that learn to forgive yourself – every day before you fall down to sleep. It is a crucial advice to be followed. There will always be someone better than you. Do not over compete. Make mistakes. Forgive.
I gave the field of medical research, or research in general, as an example of where a series of failures builds a path to success. A researcher first sets a specific and clear goal that will serve as an anchor point against which success will be measured. Then researcher starts identifying alternative experiments, prioritizes them and starts conducting research. The first, second or even one hundredth experiment may not take the researcher any closer to the set goal, but after each experiment something is always learnt: namely, that the experiments taken were not the right paths. At some point, occasionally, a path to success will be found but almost never this path is the first taken.
The same thing with any startup. They set a goal they go after at, and then rigorously and more or less systematically while applying creativity go and test assumptions through experiments.
I ended my small and minuscule contribution to the Day of Failure by quoting Esther Dyson, an angel investor I have had an opportunity to work with and a person I greatly admire in terms of integrity and intellect:
“Always make new mistakes”. That really sums up everything!