Monday, November 4, 2013

Freedom to talk about failing (sequel to my earlier post)

Larry Rosenthal has reshared a series of pictures from an event called FailCon - yes, a conference about embracing failure. If you saw my previous post, the conference organizers clearly fall into the positive (Zach Epstein) camp rather than the negative (Scott D. Anthony) camp.

As is his wont, Rosenthal summarized the conference succinctly:

Mother of all #MIPS Conferences. FAILCON 2013!?

you cant make this stuff up.... really... no seriously.

If you are unfamiliar with the #MIPS hashtag, it stands for "media induced psychosis." I provided an example of it here.

So why does FailCon rank in the #MIPS category? While I personally believe that there can be valid conversations about risk and failure, the FailCon discussions appear to be...well, rather insular. Let's look at the conference's about page:

Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it.

As Anthony notes, however, you don't want to embrace it too tightly.

FailCon is a one-day conference for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and designers to study their own and others' failures and prepare for success.

No problem here, but the next sentence is a doozy.

We all have founded, worked for or invested in startups that have failed.

ALL of us? Again, this points out the myopic nature of Valley "experts" - something I've discussed for years. The entire business world does not revolve around tech startups. Some people work for startups that sell posters. Some people work for companies that are well past the startup stage. But when decision-makers in the Valley assume that the world is just like them, well...failures can happen. Let me share a very prominent example. Steven Edward Streight has shared an article that appeared back in June of this year:

As the first website to be demonstrated by a sitting President of the United States, already occupies an unusual place in history. In October, it will take on an even more important historic role, guiding millions of Americans through the process of choosing health insurance.

How a website is built or designed may seem mundane to many people, but when the site in question is focused upon such an important function, what it looks like and how it works matter. Last week, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) relaunched with a new appearance and modern technology that is unusual in federal-government websites.

"It's fast, built in static HTML, completely scalable and secure," said Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer of HHS, in an interview. "It's basically setting up a web server. That's the beauty of it."

The article goes on to praise the wonderful technologies that were going to be part of the new website, using important words such as "open" and "transparent."

This is better than a big block of proprietary code locked up in a CMS [content management system].

Well, if you've been paying attention to the news over the last few weeks, launched - and offered huge opportunities to, as the cool kids say, "embrace failure."

But let's go back to FailCon's "About" page:

We're smart, we keep up with the latest in technology trends, but sometimes things just don't go as planned. How can you predict what will work and what won't? Well, you can't.

Once you've performed your Stuart Smalley daily affirmation saying how smart you are, you then turn around and say that there's no way to predict what will work and what won't. There is a kernel of truth in the statement, but only a kernel. If one looks at past performance, incorporates simulations, and (most importantly) does a ton of testing, you can get a pretty good idea about whether something will work or whether it won't work.

But that involves too much effort. Better to quote a few buzzwords, throw something against the wall, and hope it sticks.

And just hope that your VC sources are a little patient.

But when your VC source is the U.S. taxpayer, and there's a large group of people that really WANT your project to fail, then the "embrace failure" mantra will NOT lead to success.
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