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The Glory Of Failing Fast

Posted by on January 7, 2013

“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”
Thomas J. Watson, American businessman


Here’s something you don’t see authors do that often: I’m going to tell you about a personal business failure. Then I’m going to brag about it. I had a product I wanted to get into a market semi-related to my core business. So I had a website set up, spent sufficient bucks and time, pitched to sizable numbers and… nothing, zilch, bupkis.

In the end I discovered something in the market that made the offer unworkable and the project was shelved. The entire process took less than four weeks and was very part-time. And I’m bragging.

Specifically, I’m bragging that I failed quickly. I didn’t take months to prepare – that would not have changed the results. I didn’t beat a dead horse – it was dead when I arrived. Instead, I conserved resources and failed quickly. I had my hook in the water but their weren’t enough fish. The “positive attitude” so praised by the motivational-speaker-addicted-crowd would not have helped me get non-existent fish. It only helped me go elsewhere for fish.

The Real Moral of the Famous Edison Light Bulb Story

When asked about all the failed attempts that preceded a working light bulb, Edison replied, “I haven’t failed. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Most people think the moral of this story is the virtue of a positive attitude. That’s the wrong lesson, as it didn’t take Edison that terribly long to create a working light bulb. The most positive attitude in the world would not have benefited Edison if he took a month, or even a week, to test each new way. At a week for each attempt, Edison would have had to live to be over 191 years old to get that light bulb. At one attempt a day it would have taken over 27 years. Instead, it took Edison about a year.

Edison failed quickly.

What about your business?

Tough guy action movies often have the character saying, “Failure is not an option.” In business, failure is going to happen, but it’s just another result that happens. It’s part of growing and entering new markets, introducing new products and services, or going through the dozen no answers to get to the yes answer.

Some failures happen after months of research, planning, tens of thousands of dollars, then adjustments, more research and more money.

Some failures happens after a two weeks and a few bucks. (Hint: I like this kind of failure more than the “tens of thousands of dollars” one.)

So Why Does Failure Often Take So Long?

#1 Laziness
Too much preparation and over planning can add weeks to a job that should only take a few days. So why do people do it? Because a man (not an Old School Man, mind you) can do too much preparation, planning and research while sitting on his butt. Actually doing the job requires he get off his butt and, if he does that, he will soon discover the job doesn’t take that long.

#2 Vanity
Taking forever to fail is often the result of the unspoken assumption that every idea must be a good one. Nope. Some are huger stinkers, including the some of the ones I’ve had. If a man goes into a project asking, at least somewhere in his head, “Is this dumb?”, he’s not going to beat a dead, stinky, fly ridden horse.

So how do you want to fail? Fail quickly.

Keep It Old School, My Friend

The Old Man


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