The Scale of Failure

Note: this is a series on making a digital health startup.  The first post is here.

Last week we talked about using smoke tests to prove the awesomeness of your idea.  This week we’ll talk about the failure/success ratio.

A known fact about success and failure

It’s an oft-repeated theme that failure begets success.  For example: the New York Times Magazine cover story, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”, the (now-controversial“10,000 Hour Rule” that Malcolm Gladwell popularized, and Thomas Edison, full of such things:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

*   *   *

For the past few months I’ve been meeting with a friend, Jenny (name changed), who plans to start a startup.  She quit her job six months ago, took a course on basic coding, and attended relevant conferences.  She did all the right things.  And she remains stubborn that she intends to start a startup.

Nonetheless, to date she hasn’t started a startup.  She explains: “I need to find the thing I’m passionate about.”

*   *   *

To someone like Jenny, the advice buried in these essays is simple: If you want to get something, just start doing it.  You’ll probably mess up a bunch in the beginning, but in the process you’ll learn things and eventually you’ll succeed.

I bet Jenny has read these articles, and at the same time I suspect she hasn’t fully internalized the message.  Implicit in her search for her passion is, I think, an assumption that when she does find her passion, she’ll succeed at making a successful startup.  I think the evidence would suggest she’s wrong about that.  If success comes from failure, then the first startup Jenny tries will likely fail, as will her second, third and potentially 10th.

In fact, from that perspective she might not even want her first startup to be focused on her passion, as that startup will likely fail and then she will have let down the people she’s passionate about serving.

So what to do

Jenny isn’t unique; I speak with people who face similar issues every day.  They want to start a startup, or they want to get a job, but they’re in a sense paralyzed into inaction through a belief that they need to find the perfect job / perfect opportunity / perfect whatever.  I don’t think this situation is inherently a bad thing, per se — it’s awesome that people want to work on things they’re passionate about, and I think the world would be a better place if people spent more time thinking about what they want to do with the limited time they have.

Nonetheless I do have a few pieces of advice, as a life of thinking about one’s passion is way less fun than a life pursuing said passion.

First, this is a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, via The Listserve:

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation…”

In other words, the idea of finding a passion is a fundamentally flawed thing.  There is no “passion” out there, fully formed, ready for you to take.  Your input is a necessary ingredient in that passion, and so it’d be impossible to find it since it doesn’t exist until you put your energy into it.  Instead, start doing something, and eventually you’ll manufacture your own passion.

Second, I wanted to put some numbers behind the success/failure ratio, so people have a sense of the length of the path they’re embarking upon.  To a person suffering from optimism bias (i.e., almost everyone), the idea of failure leading to success might mean one or two attempts…but then success.  To a job seeker, this means applying to one or two jobs…and then an employment offer.

The reality is your odds are way lower.  Here are a few examples from my life:

  • When I was a senior in college I applied to 30 jobs before I got one employment offer. (1/30 = 3% success rate)
  • Before I started Podimetrics I had seen approximately 200 startup pitches in person, via things like hackathons, demo fairs, and business plan competitions.  (1/200 = 0.5% success rate)
    • Note: hackathons are a great way to see a bunch of startup ideas quickly, as the opening day often has elevator pitches from 20 or 50 entrepreneurs in rapid-fire format.
  • The startup I started before Podimetrics was called MatchLend, and it failed.  I worked on it almost-full-time for over a year, and it went through four complete iterations (like: in one iteration I was going to be a bank, and in another I was going to make a website) before I finally shut it down.  Before MatchLend, I worked on two other failed startup ideas.

Here are a few examples from other startups/artists:

  • In this brilliant speech, artist Darius Kazemi talks about the value of luck in making a successful project.  At 17:00 he puts up a list of 125 projects he has worked on in the past two years.  Each represents between one and 200 hours of work.  He then puts circles around the projects that have gotten “significant press recognition,” and the number of circles is 8.  (8/125 = 6.4% success rate)

Note: Darius’s general point is that success is basically luck:

“…beyond a certain level of effort, there’s basically no correlation between the amount of work you put into something and how successful it is.”

I generally agree with him, and I’ll add a corollary that one can make one’s own luck by increasing the volume of shots-on-goal.  As Thomas Jefferson says,

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

  • I recently attended a speech by Clint Phillips, the founder of where he mentioned completely changing his business model multiple times before coming upon a successful one.
  • Max Levchin, the founder of Paypal, believed his startup would succeed by focusing on the Palm Pilot, a failed precursor the iPhone.  When a new business model appeared (the one that would end up making Paypal a multi-billion-dollar company), Max not only didn’t embrace it but at first he tried to stop it.  He explains,

“So for a while we were fighting, tooth and nail, crazy eBay people: “Go away, we don’t want you.”

In summary, these low success rates suggest you’ll have to work on many things that fail before you have any chance at succeeding.  Perhaps the best thing is simply to focus on volume.  Make a commitment to work on 10 projects that occupy at least one hour in the next month.  Apply to 20 jobs.  Run 15 surveys.  Forget about finding your passion, and instead focus on hitting a pre-determined number of projects…and eventually success (and finding your passion) may come.

Next week we’ll switch to business-to-business (B2B) sales.


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