Fail forward; fail fast: Insights from Silicon Valley

13 June 2016 -

“BrainTechnology" Guest writer Emma Sinclair

How do we change British perceptions of failure so that a setback in business becomes no more than a business war wound, an inevitable rite of passage on the road to realising a successful idea? Here’s our exclusive report from Silicon Valley, with insight from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

In 2009, three US Air Force Majors, Dan Ward, Chris Quaid and Gabe Mounce, known for their engineering prowess, practicality and optimism, wrote a piece on failure. Their opening line? “Failure is inevitable.”

Their premise was that while nobody can entirely avoid failure, it’s possible to influence the direction in which we fail. I spoke to Ward recently and, as he rightly still believes, failures may never be “good”, some failures are definitely better than others.

To us Brits this may be somewhat counter-intuitive. Fear of failure paralyses most of us. Who openly shares stories of their ‘good’ failures? No-one I know, that’s for sure. Yet in the US it’s a business war wound; a potential inevitability and rite of passage as opposed to a shameful destroyer of careers and reputations.

I spent a week in late-May 2016 in Silicon Valley with 12 other female entrepreneurs on SVC2UK, a trade mission led by the London Mayor's International Business Programme in partnership with the British Consulate General in San Francisco.

There as ambassadors for the London technology cluster, we met entrepreneurs, financiers and senior corporate execs (Sheryl Sandberg, to name-drop just one of them) from giants such as Apple, Facebook, Uber and LinkedIn.

What was clear from our conversations is that whether an employee or employer, the appetite in Silicon Valley to encourage people with ideas to dial up their inner entrepreneur and ratchet up a tolerance for risk is supported. Founders purposely create that culture in their business, and large enterprises actively encourage experimentation.

In 2015, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin encouraged their employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on ideas that they think would most benefit Google, because, in their words, "this empowers them to be more creative and innovative.”

Even the naturally risk-averse had an opportunity to experiment – with stumbles and setbacks (more palatable than “failures” perhaps?) being fertile ground for what might be the start of something good. This sort of culture fosters an environment that breeds success – and one that we are missing out on.

As one of my fellow missionaries and founder of Seenit, Emily Forbes, says, stumbling is an essential but powerful part of innovating. The trick is just to fail forward and fail fast. Which is, we learned, what some of Silicon Valley’s finest, had experienced before their success.

I had the opportunity to watch the trailer for a new documentary about General Magic (, the story of the greatest dead company in Silicon Valley as described by Forbes. Sarah Kerruish, chief growth officer of TrialReach and fellow missionary, is the brains behind the film.

General Magic spun off from Apple in 1990, listed on NASDAQ in 1995. Eight years later, it filed for bankruptcy. However, General Magic was the opposite of a disaster, for this is the place where Tony Fadell cut his teeth before he built the iPod, iPhone and Nest, and where so many people who went on to change the world sprung from, including Megan Smith, the current chief technology officer of America; Andy Rubin, the inventor of the Android phone; and Pierre Omidyar who created eBay.

An economy predicated on failure is a critical ingredient for success. Silicon Valley has taught us this. If we want to solve big problems and build world-leading businesses we must embrace this truth – although failure doesn't have to be epic as it was in the case of General Magic.

On the wider theme of learning from past accomplishments, I asked Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the celebrated book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, what she would now include if she were writing the book again. We were fortunate to meet her and ask questions while visiting Facebook on the mission. (She wrote recently that she’d mention single mothers more.)

I loved her answer – and her frankness. She said that, had she known that her book would go viral, make this much impact and be so widely read, she would have done much more research. I reflected on that. If she had not ‘got the book out’ and instead had spent years on research, perhaps she would have missed the moment and the book would have had less traction and minimal impact on men and women worldwide. Putting something ‘out there' that might afterwards be considered slightly imperfect or incomplete can, it transpires, result in huge global impact – in this case, selling millions of copies of a seminal book.

All of us on the Silicon Valley trip had suffered career setbacks, but they didn’t define us and they certainly didn’t stop us. In the US, setbacks and failures are viewed simply as one possible outcome when you chase a big dream – as opposed to the typical UK perspective, where quite often, failure brings scorn and carries stigma.

This must change. Broader acceptance of failure, in whatever we do, should be seen for what it is: as a stepping stone to success.

Fail. Fail fast. Fail forward. Because you will grow and ultimately, you will survive and thrive.

Emma Sinclair is the youngest person to IPO a company on the London Stock Exchange. A serial entrepreneur, she is co-founder of enterprise software company EnterpriseJungle and an adviser to UNICEF UK. Follow her on Twitter @ES_Entrepreneur

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