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Why So Many Great Success Stories Began With Failure

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Peter White@petewht
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About this post

In 2014, I wrote this post for the now defunct TechVibes, which has since been taken down, about the relationship between failure and success. At the time, I was a student and inexperienced writer, but the post was well recieved and taught me a few lessons:

  1. Continual improvement and iteration always wins
  2. I got published by cold-emailing Picatic, who introduced me to TechVibes. This taught me to be bold with outreach

Disclaimer - this post was originally written for Picatic, which is now known as Eventbrite.

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I'm a failed event crowdfunder. It's hard to admit when we're wrong. We deflect, ignore and run until we're right again. Yet Walt Disney, Stephen Spielberg, and Henry Ford all failed before finding greatness.

Imagine you manage a Unilever detergent factory. Your job is to convert liquid detergent into a convenient boxed powder. You spray the liquid into the air at high pressure. It dries into powder, falls to the floor and then is put into cardboard boxes.

A simple process for making a lot of money. But there's a problem, making your new job stressful. The nozzles keep blocking, stopping production. At the end of the day management calls and you just aren't hitting your targets.

What do you do?

Unilever hired physicists, engineers and mathematicians to try and fix the problem. However, liquid to powder physics is difficult—and, despite a considerable research effort, they failed to make an effective nozzle.

Here the story usually ends. You've left your career as a detergent factory manager and gone to find a new, more achievable challenge.

Yet Unilever solved the problem. They embraced failure by modelling the natural selection process. By making 10 variants of the nozzles, some bigger, some smaller, some with grooves, some without, one performed better. Nine failed. They then took that improved nozzle and made 10 different variations. After 45 generations and countless "failures," they produced a much improved nozzle.

What happened?

Where the mathematicians, physicists and engineers had failed, repetition and iteration succeeded. By embracing failure and improving with each attempt, an efficient nozzle was created, nothing like the original.

Lessons from Crowdfunding

Two months ago I launched a crowdfunded event to raise money for Amnesty International with my local business society. It failed to reach its target. What went wrong?

We thought we did everything right. We got extensive local PR, an excellent Picatic funding page, and hundreds of people joining our Facebook event. But we only raised 35% of what was required.

I panicked. Our event was all over local media. We were getting emails and tweets from sponsors and attendees. I felt ashamed of my failure, as, just like the nozzle mathematicians, I had an overwhelming belief our solution was correct, first time.

The secret of success? Repetition.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. — Henry Ford

If you've just failed to reach your funding target, or are considering launching your own, I encourage you to fail again.

With each attempt you'll gain a bigger audience. With each attempt you'll gain more interest and followers.

You'll also gain experience and confidence. You'll know what works and what doesn't. I wish we'd filmed a video to promote our event—but I can do that next time.

History doesn't remember failure. Several of Walt Disney's businesses failed. Steven Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts multiple times. Henry Ford went bankrupt with several car companies before finding his success.

We forget the process of finding greatness, leaving only the success. Love your failures, learn from them, move forward and host something great.


Thanks for Reading!

I always appreciate feedback or suggestions for future blog posts. You can find me on Twitter or if you want to improve the article to help future readers, please feel free to submit a PR.

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