Failure as a Currency

One of the first stories I was told at 4.0 was of Kinobi — a hardware startup founded by Chapman Snowden that took part in 4.0’s Launch Cohort 1, and closed its doors a few months later. I was somewhat confused by this — not that Kinobi failed, but that 4.0 was sharing this with their new communications director as a narrative that should be core to our brand. After all, most incubators and accelerators I knew of hid their Kinobis from the public eye (minus TechStars). But having come to the other side of the fence, I now understand the value of Chapman’s story, and more importantly, my own.

This summer presented a unique opportunity to promote a failure-safe culture among 14 aspiring entrepreneurs, as we hosted our 9th cohort of education entrepreneurs during July. The culture and process was totally new for me. Having founded companies in Silicon Valley and Boston, I became quite proficient at only painting rosy pictures about my startup: quick to mention wins and high moments, conveniently forgetful about stressful lows. My rationale was logical: Everyone you meet could either be an investor, a hire, a customer or a connector, and making a strong first impression is top priority. This rationale was also lethal: I was forced to learn things the hard way, people who could potentially help me weren’t able to, and it eventually led to a false perception of myself and the health of my company.

Nine months ago, I resigned as CEO of Applyful — a collaborative college research platform for families. I hadn’t discussed it much with anyone outside of my team, board and loved ones, primarily for my team’s sake, who for the most part is still working hard to democratize the college research process. After a while, it became difficult to balance my desire to not damage the company’s credibility, with the desire to share my story with people who could benefit.

One day in the office, Christine Ortiz asked to learn more about it, and thought it was a story that should be shared with the cohort. Three parts nervous, two parts relieved, I was able to rationalize finally talking about my failures as a CEO as something I had to do for work. I had a flashback to 2003. It was my first speech to hundreds of people — a black kid from New Orleans in my freshman year of college talking to families considering sending their sons and daughter to my ninety-five percent white alma mater. I had the most epic case of butterflies until I decided to tell a joke. And the span of time between the end of that sentence and the crowd bursting in laughter felt like infinity.

Fast forward eleven years: a failed entrepreneur sharing lessons learned as a CEO for 18 months. Deja vu took over. Here I was again, talking to a room of important people about something I had no clue about. My mind begins racing:

“How did I find myself here again?”

“What’s the least embarrassing route to 2:30?”

“Wait, they’re actually planning on listening?”

“Where are all those distracting iPhone apps when you need them?”

And just like the first time, laughter came to the rescue, followed by applause and a Q&A session that made me feel like I was a part of a community. It brought my attention to an aspect of the 4.0 community that catches most people off guard: Competition is completely absent within each cohort. My audience was more comfortable with failure than I was, primarily because each Wednesday evening during Launch, they practiced being transparent and overcoming embarrassment to get help running their businesses.

We often hear the statistics about 9 out of 10 startups won’t succeed. But I’ve always wondered: where does that 90% of wisdom go? Will first-time entrepreneurs continue repeating the mistakes their predecessors made because of our cultural norms? Or will we begin to model our incubators, accelerators and innovation labs to discourage startup shaming and begin to treat failure as a currency?

If you or someone you know has been here before, give us a preview in the comments. We can learn from you.

Tony Zanders is 4.0’s Head of Communications and Outreach. A New Orleans-native and two-time tech entrepreneur, he most recently participated in the Gates Foundation’s College Knowledge Challenge. Read more of his work here.

Founder & CEO at Skilltype. Inaugural EIR at Boston University Libraries. Board emeritus at Rooted School. Native New Orleanian.

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