Some fields — such as tech startups — have gotten so comfortable sharing their missteps and flops that conferences entirely devoted to them have sprung up. What can organizers of events across all industries learn from what goes wrong?
Is incorporating failure into the meeting program the new formula for success?
Last October, entrepreneur Mike Arsenault got up in front of a ballroom full of people in San Francisco and told them about all the mistakes he had made in launching Spreadable, a word-of-mouth marketing tool for entrepreneurs. At the time, he was working as a new-product manager for the Grasshopper Group, a Boston-based virtual phone-system company. Standing before the assembled audience, Arsenault recounted how Grasshopper invested $550,000 into launching Spreadable and how the product quickly bombed — the company shut it down after only six months. He detailed the mistakes that he and the Spreadable team made along the way. Then he sat down. The crowd applauded appreciatively.
Despite the confessional nature of his presentation, this was no self-help meeting for recovering techies. This was FailCon 2012, an annual one-day conference where technology entrepreneurs, investors, designers, and programmers gather to hear stories of failure. It's not ironic or tongue-in- cheek. People really want to hear how and why others failed, and they want to use those lessons to increase their own chance of success. Arsenault's session had a straightforward title: “How NOT to Manage Product.”
Many startups fail. Everyone knows that. Yet most of the how-to events and programming for aspiring entrepreneurs have focused on the path to success, rather than the bumpy road of failure. FailCon represents something different: “Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it” is the message featured prominently on its website.
FailCon is based on the belief that failure and the lessons learned in the process of failing can be a more effective teaching tool than cheerfully relayed stories of success — and that personal accounts of failure are best shared and lessons are best learned at face-to-face events.
While FailCon is geared toward technology entrepreneurs, meeting professionals from any industry can take the concept of learning from failure and customize it to their own events, said Cassandra Phillipps, FailCon co-founder. Whether an event is dedicated wholly to failure or presents just one case study, incorporating failure into an agenda could be the key to a meeting's success.
“The startup community is a great place to start this conversation, but it's not the only place for it,” Phillipps said. “There are a lot of companies and industries where failure is very harshly punished but that only limits people's potential. By formalizing discussion of failure in settings like this, it shows professional communities that talking about failure is okay, and a person is not a failure just because they experience a failure.”
From Frustrated to Failcon
Phillipps knows of lessons learned. A few years ago, she was just another San Francisco techie hoping her startup concept would be the next big thing. It wasn't. Eager to turn things around, she attended a number of entrepreneurial events, looking for strategies and tips. “All of these events were very inspirational, but you couldn't walk away from them and immediately apply it to your business,” she recalled. “It was mostly very successful people talking about what they did well, but what I really needed at that moment was more information on what not to do.”
In 2009, she decided there must be a better way, so she and partner Diane Loviglio launched Failcon. That first event attracted 400 attendees; this year's drew 550. And it's not just the Bay Area that's interested in failure. Licensed variations of FailCon have been held in cities across the globe — in France, Singapore, Berlin, Brazil, and Sydney — each sponsored by a local organization or company. The Greater Baltimore Technology Council hosted its own Bmore Fail for tech entrepreneurs last April.
Phillipps said it's not surprising that failure-focused events are springing up in the tech world — where failure is often viewed as a career-building step rather than a career-ending catastrophe. “We've all failed,” she said, “and it's a perfectly acceptable story to share because it comes with the territory of trying something new or creating something that's never been built. Failure is an inevitable part of the process.”
Failure Is Catching On
At the same time, failure is “highly mobile,” according to Phillipps; entrepreneurs are just early adopters of a widely applicable educational format. She recently addressed a group of architects on the value of failure, and there are signs that other industries are embracing the concept of learning from mistakes, too. In 2009, Honda released “Failure: The Secret to Success,” an eight-minute documentary that provided an inside look at the mishaps of Honda racers, designers, and engineers, and how they drew upon failure to motivate them to succeed. The response was so positive that Honda followed up in 2010 by inviting five “thought leaders” from different backgrounds to record short videos talking about their own experiences with failure.
Meanwhile, a session at the 2011 TEDx Toronto conference titled “Doctors make mistakes: Can we talk about that?” has been viewed more than 630,000 times on YouTube. In the session, Toronto emergency-room physician and CBC radio host Brian Goldman, M.D., tells of some of the mistakes he's made over the course of his career. He discusses how failure presents opportunities for improvement, and he calls on other doctors to start talking about mistakes.
David Ring, M.D., a respected hand and arm surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, has done just that. Ring chose to open up about a mistake he made — a few years ago, he performed the wrong hand surgery on a patient — and he's become a popular invited speaker as a result. He and his colleagues from Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School later detailed the series of missteps that led to the mistake, as well as the safety procedures enacted as a result, in The New England Journal of Medicine. Since that very public admission of error, Ring said he went on what he calls the “Wrong Procedure World Tour,” speaking in front of medical groups and organizations interested in improving their own patientsafety programs. “I wasn't surprised when people started asking me to come speak,” he said. “I think people are craving these conversations.”
Health-care providers aren't the only ones discussing their mistakes on the conference stage. This month in Chicago, pastors from around the Midwest will gather for the fourth Epic Fail Pastors Conference, the brainchild of J.R. Briggs, a blogger and pastor at The Renew Community in Lansdale, Pa. Prior to launching Epic Fail Pastors, Briggs left most conferences feeling dejected rather than inspired. “All these conferences had interesting speakers,” he said, “but I found myself walking away saying either I feel really crappy or this is really irrelevant to my life.”
Fed up, Briggs dashed off a blog post proposing a conference where nobody was allowed to talk about the success they had achieved; instead speakers had to share how they failed in ministry. “The value in that,” he said, “would be helping pastors embrace failure and see failure as an invitation to growth and an opportunity for grace and healing.” Almost immediately, his inbox started filling up. “No blog post I've ever written has had more hits,” he said. “It was both exciting and tragic. Exciting because it was clear