Failure:Lab Offers Empowerment Through Personal Tales of Woe

Failure: We’ve all experienced it, and, in the startup world, failure is often seen as a necessary step on the path to success. But if it’s such a universal experience, why are we so reluctant to talk about it? Wouldn’t we all feel a little better if we knew our friends and neighbors struggle just like we do?

That’s the idea behind Failure:Lab, a live storytelling event series drawing hundreds of attendees that was founded by three entrepreneurs in Grand Rapids, MI, in 2012. By showcasing tales of personal blunders, the founders of Failure:Lab hope to mitigate the fear of failure and encourage “intelligent risk-taking,” says co-founder Austin Dean, who also works full-time mentoring tech startups at GR Current. So far, everyone from professional athletes, actors, and rappers to tech entrepreneurs and stay-at-home parents have shared their stories on stage.

Though organizers don’t allow storytellers to talk about what happened after failure or offer lessons, they do encourage audience members to share their thoughts on Twitter using the #failurelab hashtag, then they collect and publish the crowdsourced words of wisdom online in order to spur further discussion.

“We try to have a mix of local and national speakers at each event, but I think the most powerful stories are local,” Dean says. “We’re pushing back against the isolation of failure. There’s so much to learn from adversity and what it takes to succeed. People enjoy the events because they’re exposed to very intimate backstories. It builds relationships and communities—people walk away with a sense of togetherness.”

In the Midwest, especially, failure is a topic that isn’t often publicly explored. Dean thinks it may be because industrial cities like Detroit experienced escalating growth and success for decades before economic forces brought their manufacturing-based economy to a halt. “People got comfortable,” he says. “It’s hard to be agile when you’re complacent. But Michigan was one of the first states to hit bottom, and we’ll be one of the first to get back on track.”

Failure:Lab has a host of events scheduled in Michigan this year—the next one is Feb. 2 at East Grand Rapids High School—as well as around the globe. Organizers have established an online portal that allows communities to independently host their own events. Failure:Lab funds its operations through ticket sales, sponsorships, and licensing fees paid when a community chooses to host an event independently. All Failure:Lab talks are videotaped and are available for free online. “That’s the big initiative we’re pushing this year, that people can host an event themselves using our resources,” Dean explains.

Dean says he and his co-founders are excited by how quickly Failure:Lab is catching on: “What differentiates us is that our storytellers aren’t sharing a moral of the story. Instead, they’re inviting the audience into it. People are hungry for honest confessions and the chance to consider them on their own.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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  • Edward Dolan

    Interesting. I am both an adult storyteller and a consultant (to med tech companies) on project failure. Failure is jolting and depressing — and a powerful stimulant to change. The key difference comes in recognizing and taking responsibility for the failure — and then getting some emotional distance from it. Storytelling can do that. As Dean says in the article, not trying to pinpoint some simplistic “moral of the story,” but laying out the human experience so others can hear, “see” and relate.