Category Archives: Failure

Happy New Years: Get after it

Hollywood Sign
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This morning I  stumbled upon an oldie but a goodie courtesy of Marc Andreessen‘s blog .   Hope you enjoy.  I wish you all the very best.


(PS.  Yo, Marc.  Bring back the blog.  At the very least, be a part of my Fulbright study and do a guest post on mine?)

From Paul Zollo’s book Hollywood Remembered, an oral history of the movie industry:

A 2001 interview with A. C. Lyles, a producer at Paramount who was born in 1918 in Jacksonville, Florida and worked at Paramount for over 60 years.

When I was 10 [in 1928] I wanted to make movies

I had seen a picture called Wings — the first and only silent picture to win the Academy Award — with Clara Bow… and a new fella named Gary Cooper [who subsequently became a huge star]. I went and just fell in love with that picture. It was a Paramount picture playing at the Paramount Theater [at the time, the studios owned the theaters] in Jacksonville. I had seen that it said Adolph Zukor Presents, so I was in awe of Adolph Zukor [the founder and CEO of Paramount]. I spoke to the manager of the theater that day [to see] if he would give me a job. And he gave me a job handing out leaflets…

After four years in the job [he was then 14] I eventually met Adolph Zukor… when he came to Jacksonville. I asked him to let me come to Hollywood to work for him. He said, “Well, you’re just a kid, but you’ve been working for Paramount now for four years at the theater. So you finish high school, keep in touch, and I’ll hire you when you get out of high school.”

Now that was extremely kind of him… when he said to keep in touch and finish high school, my main objective then was to finish high school. But the most important thing was writing him a letter every Sunday. He didn’t tell me to write him every Sunday, he just told me to keep in touch. So I wrote him every Sunday for four years.

He didn’t write back — I didn’t hear from him but it didn’t matter. I never lost confidence or lost courage. I just knew he was looking forward to my letter each week as much as I was looking forward to writing him.

One day Gary Cooper came to my hometown. I was writing movie news for the hometown paper. I saw Mr. Cooper and I told him I would be out here in Hollywood to work at Paramount as soon as I got out of high school. And there again, for some reason, he took a quick liking to me. I told him about my letters to Zukor every Sunday and he asked me what I would be writing about this week, and I said, “Oh, about meeting you, Mr. Cooper.”

So he said, “Give me a piece of paper.” So he… wrote a note to Adolph Zukor saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing this kid on the lot.” So I wrote to Mr. Zukor telling him I had met Gary Cooper and enclosed the note to him.

Then I heard from Mr. Zukor indirectly. A woman named Sidney Brecker, who was his secretary, wrote to me and said, “Mr. Zukor has been receiving your letters. But he feels that you don’t have to write every week. If you wrote once every three or four or five months, that would be enough.”

Well, that didn’t discourage me at all. I continued to write to Mr. Zukor every Sunday. But I also had a new pigeon, Sidney Brecker, his secretary. So I wrote her every Sunday too. My whole main objective all week was what I was going to write to Mr. Zukor. Then I had to write another original letter to Sidney Brecker…

I wrote [Zukor] a letter every Sunday for four years, keeping in touch. The day I got out of high school [in 1936, in the heart of the Great Depression], I was in a day coach headed for Hollywood, where you sit up — probarbly four days and four nights. I had $48 in cash that I had saved up, and two loaves of bread, and two jars of peanut butter and a sack of apples, and I headed for Hollywood. Got off the train downtown, took the streetcar straight to Paramount, and told them at the gate to tell Mr. Zukor I was here.

And I’ve been here ever since.

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4 Logical Reasons to be Persistent

Warhol's Light Bulbs
Image by zetson via Flickr

Persistence is a well known but (in my opinion) poorly understood quality of successful entrepreneurs.  At its best, persistence is having the will to persevere in spite of whatever obstacles, challenges, or set backs you may encounter.  At its worst, persistence is confused with not figuring out a better course of action.  Based on what I’ve seen, here are some logical reasons for pushing through the dip, backed by some good ‘old Edison quotes:

1) Most obviously, increased number of wrong attempts = increased learning = better future solutions.  Luck plays a large part in a start-up’s success, but entrepreneurship less like the lotto, and more like poker.  Studies claim to have proven, that VC-backed entrepreneurs that have failed before have a slightly better chance of succeeding than first timers (23% vs. 22%).  As you might expect, entrepreneurs that have succeeded previously are much more likely to succeed in their next venture (33% chance of “success”) not just because of the entrepreneur’s skills but because of reason #2 below.

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Thomas Edison

2) Signaling dependability and durability reduces the perceived “cost” of your service to current and potential customers, employees, investors, or anyone else that has something to lose if you give up or go out of business.  For example, you switch to a new start-up SAAS company because they can do the job cheaper than your old provider, but then they go out of business.  Now you are stuck with a platform that is longer updated, is no longer serviced, or even worse, no longer works.Even if your service is free, prospective customers consider the switching costs that they would incur not only to join your service but to switch back to another provider should you fail.

The more persistent you appear, the less risky (and expensive) of an option you are in the eyes of prospective constituents.  This reduces the “cost” of trying your products and services, making you more competitive, and thus more likely to succeed.  Amar Bhinde covers this topic in his excellent study of the INC 500 companies.  Why VCs are especially interested in proven entrepreneurs that have just failed is covered here by Brad Feld.  Hunger baby.

“Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.”

-Thomas Edison

3) Not all progress is visible. No one knows the “magic number” of impressions advertisers must achieve before inspiring custmers to purchase   Likewise, you don’t always know when you are about to pass the tipping point for traction, score the deal, or get the job.  As Paul Allen points out, this is a good reason to measure progress as often as possible.

“Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

-Thomas Edison

4) If you stick around long enough, factors beyond your control may change in your favor. It is easy to speculate but impossible to know what goes on behind a customer’s or investor’s walls.  You may get turned down by Stefanie the purchasing associate 20 times before one day you call to find Frank on the phone.  You and frank hit it off and the order is sealed.  Did you do anything differently?  No, but you stuck around long enough to reap the reward.  Mark Andreessen covers this nicely here.

“Nearly every man who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That’s not the place to become discouraged.”

-Thomas Edison

Oh, but just in case things don’t seem to be working out.  Don’t forget this guy:

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

-Albert Einstein

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Fear of Failure

Tonight I was discussing the irony of how I am writing a paper about entrepreneurial best practices such as iterative development*, and yet I have been working in this little hole of mine for months without getting any of my work to market. Why not? I care about how my work is perceived and thus I haven’t wanted to exhibit work that I felt was not of sufficient caliber. Basically, I let my work and my identify become intertwined. How unentrepreneurial of me. After all, the quintessential entrepreneur is supposedly completely internally driven, indifferent to other people’s opinion of him or her.

In most professional pursuits, the goal is known, criteria for success are clear, and measuring your performance is easy. In these scenarios, it is possible to “get it right” the first time. And thus, you are incentivized to front load your efforts to avoid the detrimental effects of failing- even if you don’t care what other people think, their opinion can impact you (e.g. they wont work with you).

Entrepreneurs face a very different scenario, and thus it’s no surprise the people drawn to entrepreneurial endeavors exhibit very different behavioral patterns than those who choose to follow more “traditional” pursuits. For those trying to create something brand new, goals are often undefined and dynamic. Because the criteria for success are ambiguous, there are no good standards by which to measure your performance (at least in the beginning). Since you are highly unlikely to “get it right” off the bat (whatever “it” is), you are incentivized to stage your investments, taking small steps, and then asking the world to validate your work. There may be detrimental effects from failing (not to your psyche though), but they are vastly outweighed by the losses you would incur from spending your time building up “castles in the sky,” businesses or product for which there is no demand outside you skull. Entrepreneurs are thus incentivized to fail early and fail often.

And there lies the linkage between the behavioral profile of an entrepreneur (internally driven) and an entrepreneurial best practice (iterative development).