An Ode to Error: Entrepreneurship and the Importance of Being Wrong

6/17/11Follow @wroush

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the quality or features of its product. It can be wrong about the market that wants its product. It might find the right market, but then learn that it’s not as big as expected. Or it might just have bad timing. The point is that there are so many opportunities for showstopper mistakes in a typical startup that, from the badge-of-honor point of view, it would be silly to penalize the founders too harshly when a venture runs aground. Most Silicon Valley investors do seem to realize this—and they also know that truly great entrepreneurs, engineers, and salespeople are in short supply, meaning there’s often no choice but to recycle them.

There’s some great material in Being Wrong about how error arises, from procedural errors in operating rooms or airline cockpits to the groupthink that doomed Wall Street in 2008 to the types of mistakes that will sound more familiar to entrepreneurs, such as the problem of sunk costs: the more we’ve invested in a belief, the harder it is to let go of it. But Schulz’s most important contribution is to get us to think harder about the instant right after we’ve realized we’re wrong. This is a precious moment, and one that’s often squandered; as Schulz points out, mistaken belief A is usually replaced completely and instantaneously by new belief B, and we press on as if we’d never thought otherwise. For an entrepreneur, though, learning how to resist this urge to paper over one’s mistakes, and instead simply immerse oneself in one’s wrongness—if only briefly—can be an especially useful skill. For one thing, it’s the only way to form a more accurate understanding of the world, which is under no obligation to conform to our personal beliefs. Error “startles, troubles, and sometimes delights us by showing us that the world isn’t as we imagined it to be,” writes Schulz.

A few pages later, she argues that “wrongness is a natural and ongoing process, and we are not deformed but transformed by it.” If you buy that, then I think you also have to question elements of recent thinking in entrepreneurship circles—specifically, the “lean startup,” “customer development,” and “product/market fit” methodologies espoused by gurus like Eric Ries, Steve Blank, and Marc Andreessen. These metrics-driven approaches (which are obviously easiest to apply in the world of software startups) emphasize getting a product to market quickly, testing it with real customers or potential customers, gathering feedback, and “iterating” as many time as necessary to achieve the vaunted “product/market fit”—the nirvana where you’ve got something people are willing to pay for. The whole idea of this new “science of entrepreneurship” is to help startups avoid failure.

But the question is whether the product that finally “fits” has anything to do with your values or your original passion. If all of your data is coming from the people you think might be your customers, you might eventually end up with something that pleases this specific audience, but you might never realize that it was the wrong audience in the first place. And the chances are high that you’ll have to drop the most innovative stuff along the way. In your haste to build things people say they want, in other words, you’ll sacrifice features they would have loved if you’d taken the time to perfect them. As venture capitalist Fred Wilson has commented, “lean startup [methodology] is a machine—garbage in, garbage out.”

I’m not saying that the old dot-com-era model—raise millions of dollars, take a year or two to develop a product, and then find out whether there’s a market for it—was better. I’m not saying that entrepreneurs should take crazy risks developing products for which there is no demonstrable market. And I’m certainly not questioning the entrepreneurial credentials of people like Blank, Ries, and Andreessen. I’m just saying that a process designed to eliminate failure is also likely to eliminate creativity.

There’s a delightful passage in Being Wrong where Schulz points out that people sometimes seek out certain kinds of wrongness. To travel to a foreign country, for example, is also to take a trip inward, to a place where none of our adult experiences apply anymore and we’re like kids again, forced to play in the world in order to figure it out. “The farther afield you venture, the more you set yourself up for confusion, surprise, and the violation of your beliefs,” writes Schulz. “The desire to experience this kind of wrongness is seldom the explicit reason people engage in recreational travel…but it is often the implicit one.”

I think the best entrepreneurs have a lot in common with travel junkies: they’re willing to venture to places they’ve never been with the hope of finding something amazing enough to entice the rest of us to join them. And while they take along maps and supplies, they know they’re likely to get lost at some point, and that they might end up somewhere they never expected. Even these hardy startup travelers have a natural aversion to error—but they also know it’s a bad reason to stay at home.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Kate

    Wade, time for you to write your book.

  • Tom Tierney

    > I’m just saying that a process designed to eliminate failure is also likely to eliminate creativity.

    The process Steve Blank lectures on isn’t about “eliminating failure”, it’s about creating a model to experience it earlier in the startup process. He tries to get entrepreneurs to “get out of the building” and talk to potential customers early and get them involved early in the product creation process.

    I do agree that we need to embrace failure more often as part of the learning process not only for entrepreneurs, but anyone in life.

    Thomas Edison is probably the poster boy for this discussion: he certainly had a history of many failed experiments, but we judge him by the weight of his successes.

    In sports we judge by wins/losses, the higher the ratio of wins to losses determines success. In life, certainly in an entrepreneurial life, the ratio of losses to wins might be equally important: failure is just another step on the road to success.

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