Opinion

The biggest lesson the UK can learn from Silicon Valley is…

5 min read

23 September 2015

Given the stereotypes about American competitiveness, it might seem odd to consider embracing failure as one of our greatest assets. However, once you stop and think about it for a moment, it starts to make sense.

Consider the action hero: in every film, at some point he/she gets knocked down. Then knocked down again, and again. Usually, it reaches a farcical state of superhuman determination.

The message is clear: each failure is another reason to work harder and win. And, ultimately, that’s why they’re the hero. It’s not necessarily because they won at the end, it’s as much about because they got back up after failing those previous times. 

Acceptance of failure as a necessary step toward success is an ingrained part of the American psyche, especially in business. It’s no wonder then that the ‘heroes’ of Silicon Valley talk of embracing failure. They were raised on it. 

Not to mention, the historical and legal systems in the US are designed to forgive a first try to encourage continued growth in innovation. 

For the last decade or so, Silicon Valley has widely espoused the virtues of failing to succeed. The immense value in learning from failure to eventually reach success is exemplified by mantras like “fail fast”, “fail forward” and “fail to succeed”.

In 2009, this cultural imperative culminated in FailCon, an annual event showcasing entrepreneurs failures and lessons learned; an idea that has been replicated by corporates around the world.

Those systemic and cultural paradigms are expanding beyond the American borders, but how can we take the good, while maintaining due diligence in the UK business market?

“Failure or bankruptcy is not culturally accepted in Europe, but if we want to encourage the abundance of talent to start and join early-stage companies trying to change the world, we need to accept there will be many, many more flops than hits,” wrote Index Ventures’ Saul Klein, in a 2007 blog post. 

Here we are, eight years after Klein wrote that post, and it seems apparent that failure in the UK is unlikely to be placed on a pedestal the way it is in Silicon Valley; but the limited embrace of failure is too detrimental to innovation and entrepreneurship in the UK to be ignored.

UK universities and the government are making great efforts to encourage entrepreneurs and investors though grants, entrepreneurship visas, EIS and SEIS schemes. 

Yet, in my day-to-day interaction with UK startups, all too often entrepreneurs make one or all of the following errors:

  • Put off experimentation
  • Decline to solicit feedback about wild ideas
  • Refuse to showcase low-fi prototypes in hopes of presenting something more robust and polished to a user or an investor

On the other side, investors are often unwilling to take chances on startups that show traction in any way other than revenue. 

This approach is fundamentally flawed. No news is NOT good news. Iterative design and innovation require taking risks, leaps of faith and calculated chances. 

In the world of lean and DevOps, feedback is constant and failure is a certainty, and the cost of failure is so low these days that it seems as though social stigma is the only barrier to asking a new user of a product what their thoughts are (and you can do this through an anonymous feedback interfaces anyway).

I’m not saying we in the UK need to accept every trendy bit of advice coming out of Silicon Valley. God knows, London doesn’t need its cafes serving ‘butter coffee’ (thought the shop around the corner from my flat is certainly trying to cash in on this trend).

I am saying that the UK has a good deal more work to do to embrace the value of experimentation and failure in business.  

That’s not to say the UK is totally stagnant in its fear of failure. The very existence and incredible success of the aforementioned Index Ventures is evidence of that.

What’s missing is the standard, the mantra that says failure is how we succeed. It’s not a necessary evil or the pitfall of the wayward. Failure is the curriculum of a course too dynamic to teach, and the UK, with its highly educated and technology savvy labour force, is the perfect classroom for it.

Maulik Sailor is the CEO and founder of Innovify and Jeff Sinick is in charge of venture creation & incubation at the company

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