Fail small to avoid failing big

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I failed.

Many times!

So have you.

So how do we make the most of it?

Yesterday, I was on a panel at Schoolab, talking about reframing failure. It’s a scary topic to tackle on stage, but I think that we handled it gracefully.

As the PM-turned-CEO on the panel, I got to talk about failure and iteration in product development. To me, failure is intimately tied to goal setting and team morale. Some failure is also an inevitable step in getting to bigger success.

No failure (or growth) without goals

To recognize failure in product development, you need to articulate a clear hypothesis and set goals against which you can measure the outcome.

For example, if you launch a product that gets 100K new users and people are raving about it, that may look like a success on the surface. But if the time you put into the product could only be justified if you got 10X as many users, and 10X is what your business needs for healthy growth, then it would have been a failure that went unnoticed. More importantly, you wouldn’t learn anything from it to do a better job next time.

Celebrate progress to allow yourself to fail and learn

People are often worried about setting too specific goals and would rather be able to declare success more often. But that limits your ability to build the best product or business quickly.

The key to setting clear goals and acknowledging failure is to learn to celebrate progress — not just outcomes — as a team. You can celebrate a launch, the fact that a product attracts new users, or that some users are loving it. You can celebrate those things while acknowledging that you’re not meeting the goal and thinking about what you can do better.

The practice of learning from failure should not get in the way of celebrating people’s work and building team morale. In fact, if people know that they will get due credit for building something great, they will have the courage to set stretch goals and openly talk about why they didn’t meet them.

Fail small to avoid failing big

Our company recently went through Y Combinator. Plastered on the YC walls and t-shirts is the phrase, “make something people want.”

This motto pushes founders to talk with customers early to find out what they want, quickly build an MVP, ship early for feedback, and see if people are willing to pay for it. The point is to avoid the failure of wasting time and money building something no one wants to use.

For the same reason, YC doesn’t like founders to take too much funding early because it makes founders more comfortable pretending like they already have things figured out. They risk building huge teams before the company has actually validated the idea.

It’s an interesting play on short-term vs. long-term failure. It’s much better for your idea or product to quickly fail to protect you from having your business ultimately fail.

CEO & Co-Founder at Kraftful (kraftful.com)

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