I get a lot of questions from fellow founders and others thinking about starting a business. People always ask about failure – whether we’ve made any big missteps, and if so, how we and I handle being wrong.
As a first time CEO of a company in apparel, as a guy who only owns 4 shirts, I fail a lot. Daily at least. Sometimes they’re little stumbles, and other times it feels like my life is over and I should consider packing it up and becoming a truck driver. Early on I would get questions during pitches from investors that sounded like this to me:
“In slide 6, the AARP on your 1st customer seems to be about 7% above the international date line index. Now (chortling with an air of ‘I’m quite pleased that I am about to wee in your Cheerios’) I don’t know which direction YOUR fezzywhig points, but here at VentureTech3000, we only invest in companies with an AARP 3.5% or less. Can you explain the discrepancy?”
Needless to say, I was swimming out of my depth. I didn’t know the answers to the questions I was being asked, and I hadn’t thought enough about the business to be right even if I did. It was a double-whammy. I couldn’t figure out why investors didn’t share my sizzling passion for the idea and penchant for stage flair. It happened a lot to me early on, and as somebody who likes to win, it was devastating and disorienting.
I came to realize two things. First: if I was going to get Thread right, I had to start acting like a pro. A good founding story only gets you so far, and you better damn well have a good answer when you finish a pitch and somebody asks the inevitable “So what?”.
Second, startup legends are sexy. And because of that, entrepreneurs are conditioned to believe that failure has a bit of romance to it these days. I’m here to dispel the myth. No matter what every Silicon Valley self-help book tells you about how great it feels to fail, how healthy your organization is when it screws up, and how amazing YOU are when you fall down, failure blows. It also gets worse as the numbers get bigger and people come to depend on you. In business – as crinkly-old-man as it sounds – not everybody gets a trophy. There are winners and there are losers, and that’s ok.
Sometimes… failing means getting the rental car stuck in the snow.
All that said, any good comedian will tell you that they learn the most when they bomb. The greats will tell you that they wouldn’t be great UNLESS they bombed every once in a while. The point is, screwing up is inevitable and it’s important – but it’s definitely not any fun. Here are 5 ways to manage failure when it punches you in the face:
1. DON’T TRY AND MANAGE IT.
Instead acknowledge it. Today you sucked. No big deal. Even Ted Williams, the greatest hitter to ever play the game of baseball, only hit the ball 40% of the time. The trick is recognizing your screw up for what it is. Not recognizing your mistake is bad. Unrecognized failure builds up over time, and if you let it, can easily transform you into pompous, cynical prick. Nobody likes that person or wants to come work for that person.
2. SPEND A MINUTE BEING SNARKY.
After properly acknowledging your goose egg of a move, nothing makes you feel better like a little acerbic sarcasm with friends. A private zinger or two about the person who called you out can ice a bruised ego, and when done with trusted co-workers, it can actually build a little solidarity. Just be careful. Snark doesn’t require a lot of encouragement to spread like wildfire. If you’re not careful, that snark can snuff out all traces of optimism and enthusiasm, and burn the whole place down.
… and sometimes, it’s getting the truck stuck in the mud.
3. UNPACK IT. QUICKLY.
I carry a large cherry-red North Face bag every time I travel, which is every week. My team makes fun of me daily, but I like it because it’s hard to lose. It is sitting in an overhead compartment about three feet from me at this very moment, accompanying me as I make my way to Iceland, Haiti, and St. Louis, then back to New York.
It has been all over the world, and after a trip like the one I’m on – with extremes in temperature, humidity, and ratio of white to black people – it’s going to be beat up and little gross. You know the only thing that will make it disgusting? Leaving it in my hallway for a week after I get home. My red bag is your piece-of-shit decision. The sooner you can open it up and get all the stink out, the more faithfully it will serve you in the long run.
4. DISTILL WHAT YOU LEARN.
I feel the same way about failure as I do performance reviews: Unless you can boil it all down to one or two things you need to change, it’s just going to be a fairly useless exercise. You might not like what you discover. Who cares? Fix it. Sometimes even the greats need to completely overhaul their acts to rediscover the laughter.
And then other times, it’s being caught in a Snuggy.
5. MOVE QUICKLY.
What are you still doing here? You’re competitors are, as we speak, changing the direction of their fezzywhig and lowering their AARP.
Editors Note: We revise questions and answers for length, change up the format, and then throw in a few images and video clips to keep you on your toes. Got a question for our fearless leader or fearsome team? Submit a question.