What it Means to Fail Fast

July 12, 2011

A popular saying among entrepreneurs is “fail fast,” or the extended “fail often, fail fast, fail cheaply.” This is a perplexing phrase, especially in the age of “never give up” and “shoot for the stars.” Indeed, I was recently reading the legendary 1937 business book “Think & Grow Rich,” where I encountered a lot of praise for the “keep at it, don’t take no for an answer, don’t accept failure” mentality. So the big question, then: how can these two adages possibly co-exist?

The fact of the matter is that “fail fast” does not mean “give up.” Quite the contrary. “Fail fast” is the product of a society that is finally recognizing failure as a tremendously valuable learning experience. Outside of the US, it has long been known that an entrepreneur with 3 failures under his belt is more likely to succeed than an entrepreneur with one massive success behind him. He (or she) works harder, especially under pressure, and has learned the all important “what not to do.” It’s a lot easier to learn the “do’s” from books; the “don’ts” are hard-earned lessons that come from real-world experience. Here in the US, then, with the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs lower than ever, we are realizing the value of failure (still sounds funny, though, doesn’t it?), and urging our entrepreneurs to “fail often, fail fast, and fail cheap.”

But how exactly does “fail fast” differ from “give up early”? I’m reminded of the posters that adorn the walls of Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters: “Move Fast & Break Things.” This is exactly the mentality behind “fail fast.” Those who fail fast do so because they throw everything but the kitchen sink at their problems. They move fast, throw caution to the wind, and break things. They go “all in,” with a valiant effort towards success; if it isn’t meant to be, they fail fast, and hard. And because they expended maximum effort in minimum time, they fail relatively cheaply – at least that’s the hope. By contrast, those who “quit” generally work hard, but hold some trepidation. Eventually, this trepidation grows to doubt, which grows to defeat. Inevitably, this is when people quit.

A neat little video about some famous failures

No, I’m not advocating you take out another mortgage on your house, put up your life savings, and either succeed or fail in a blaze of glory. I am, however, suggesting that you blitz your goals with everything you’ve got. A flame that burns brightly will either burn through it’s resources quickly or engulf everything around it. A flame that burns timidly with burn forever, wasting time, and going nowhere. It’s a stretch of an analogy, but it sheds some light – pun intended.

What does “fail fast” mean to you? Have you experienced a difference between failing and quitting?

Thanks as always for reading, sharing, following, and supporting!

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