Entrepreneurs don’t need opportunities to fail, they need opportunities to suck

I just got back from the Startup Canada Day On The Hill conference, a one-day conference full of entrepreneurship and government actors in a room, talking strategies for increasing innovation, leveraging diversity, and pushing Canada towards a more successful future. One topic that came up constantly was the idea that creating opportunities for failure will increase innovation and encourage more people to become entrepreneurs.

But this doesn’t seem like the right problem-solution “fit”. Entrepreneurs are people who are not afraid of failure. Those who self select into entrepreneurship will fail no matter what because failure is a part of success. De-stigmatizing failure and reframing it as a learning tool has a lot of benefit to it, but one does not fail until they have already started and self-selected in, so this does not address the entrance problem.

If you want to encourage more people to take the initial risk and try entrepreneurship, the focus should not be on allowing failure. It should be on allowing people to suck.

I almost didn’t get up to pitch my company, Ziversity, the first time I had the chance – and it wasn’t cause I thought I was going to “fail”. I had a pitch, I was going to deliver it. There was no “failure” in that. Instead, I was worried I would suck so much that I would be blacklisted in the entrepreneurial community, cast off as a total moron not worth investing in (after all, the entrepreneurial community is very keen on “winner take all” mentalities and rarely do they question why someone is winning – if you are good, you win. If you are bad, you lose. End of story).

This obviously did not happen. Ziversity is a graduate of the Founder Institute Incubator and the StartupNext Pre-Accelerator, run by Techstars. I learned how to get better at pitching, how to craft my story, and how to communicate my vision because of those two highly supportive programs where “sucking” at first was expected. I’m still working on it, don’t get me wrong, but I would not have had any growth had I not had the opportunity to suck at it first, getting a little bit better each time.

So how do entrepreneurial communities give new entrepreneurs more opportunities to suck?

Beginner Pitch Sessions:

Spaces need to be carved out for the sole purpose of having smart people hearing new entrepreneurs pitch their companies and ideas. Most of the time, the first few are going to be painful for everyone – and everyone knows that going in, so the bar is not set for Dragon’s Den-style investment decisions made on the spot. It is instead focused on next steps, iteration, and solidification of a pitch.

Feedback Based on Next Steps, Not Opinions:

Feedback should be focused on prescriptive next steps with follow up resources – “If I were in your shoes, I would look at X. Let’s schedule a meeting to talk about what X looks like in your company” or “If you were asking me to invest in your company, I would need to know about ABC. Here are some resources you should check out on ABC.

Reminders of What We Do Well:

Bringing up what someone does well serves two great functions that are particularly important for new and would-be entrepreneurs: It enables them to develop a foundation of good skills so they are not changing everything about a pitch every single time and it offers confidence in the process, reminding those pitching that they do have a little bit going for them and can work hard to get the next bit.

Failure is having a very sexy moment right now. It is rightly considered valiant to have tried and failed; you either pick up and succeed later or at you’ve learned something to apply in another avenue in life.

But when it comes to getting people to try out something new, it isn’t only about offering them knowledge that if they fail they will not be frowned upon. It is much simpler than that. As humans, our greatest concern when we start something new is not for an esoteric view of failure later in the game. It’s about the embarrassment and individual pain we face taking that first wobbly step forward. It’s about being scared of sucking.

Create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to suck and get better, and you’ll solve a major hurdle in the first steps towards innovation and increased entrepreneurial participation.


Stefan is a diversity and inclusion consultant and Founder of Ziversity, an online diversity recruiting and sourcing platform. He has a number of years of experience in the HR/diversity recruiting space, starting with his research at Yale University and continuing through numerous non-profit positions. He blogs about diversity, inclusion, tech, startups, and cultural commentary. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios. Business inquiries can be sent to stefan@ziversity.com.

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