This is an edited version of a talk I gave at a recent Fuckup Nights. Fuckup Nights is a great series of events, that encourages people to talk about their failures and how they made it through. Check out the next event here
For those of you who don’t know — when Gary and Josh first brought Fuckup nights to Melbourne two years ago — I was the first person they called. So out of everyone in Melbourne, I was fuckup numero uno. Something I am very proud of!
So a little bit about me. My background is in engineering. After I finished University, I got into project management. I stayed in that job for 7 years, after which I thought I can’t be doing this anymore. And thus began a series of adventures and misadventures. I went back to University, got a Masters in International business, tried to get into consulting (which didn’t work out), volunteered for tech startups and social enterprises started a consulting company that failed, worked for a startup for a while and am now running Disruptive Business Network and BA3
Through all of that, there are plenty of individual fuckups too many to mention here. So instead I’ve grouped all of those into 3 themes.
- To Quit or not to Quit
“Quitters never win or winners never quit” is god-awful advice. Whoever said that didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
In my experience winners quit all the time. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple for his second legendary run as CEO, the first thing he did was quit a majority of their products and focus on a few. Jeff Bezos quit a very well paid job as a hedge fund manager and started Amazon. To know if and when to quit is important. Because there is a distinction. Seth Godin makes this distinction in his book ‘The Dip’. What he says is that you need to know the difference between a cul-de-sac and a dip. A cul-de-sac is French for dead-end. It’s a situation where you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing, things are a bit too comfortable. You look into the horizon and there is nothing there. There is a feeling of ennui rather than excitement. If you recognise that the situation you are in is a cul-de-sac, quit immediately! My fuck-up was that I knew I was in a cul-de-sac in my old job after 4 years, but I stuck with it for another 3 because I was comfortable.
A dip, on the other hand, is different. A dip is a setback or a series of setbacks that can be overcome with grit and persistence. It’s knowing that just because a person rejects you that doesn’t mean that the market rejects you. That in an entrepreneurial journey (or in any journey) you are going to take plenty of hits, financially, emotionally, psychologically. But at the end of it is growth and learning, if nothing else. It is also important to know what you are willing to put up with. If you are starting a company, I recommend reading ‘Shoe Dog’ and ‘The Hard Thing about hard things’ both excruciating accounts of entrepreneurial journeys. And ask yourself if you have the resolve to make it through the dip. The real battle isn’t out there, the real battle is in here (points to head) understanding yourself and be able to regulate your emotions. My fuck up, with the first company I started, we went through a dip. Things got hard so we quit.
2. Mr Nice Guy
Being nice all the time is a fuckup. Avoiding conflict is a fuckup. Ignoring early warning signals is a fuckup. All of which I am supremely guilty of. Conflict shouldn’t be avoided because there is truth in conflict. You don’t want to smooth it over. Hiding conflict causes it to fester and grow. With one my cofounders there were initial problems that I felt in my gut that I laughed off and ignored. Those gradually built up, until they exploded, things got really nasty and we are still dealing with the fallout months later. I believe that if I an uncomfortable conversation initially it would have saved everyone a lot of heartaches and headaches. One thing to keep in mind. The opposite of nice isn’t being an asshole. The opposite of nice is clarity. In a way being nice is being an asshole because you are denying the other person a true path forward. As Brene Brown says ‘Clear is kind, Unclear is Unkind’
Another thing, Peter Drucker has this quote ‘Hire for character, train for skill’ (or it is attributed to him) — I think that also applies to finding a co-founder. Choose a cofounder for heir character over their skill.
3. Being a Hero
When I started my entrepreneurial journey, I thought I was a hero — that it was all on me. My successes, my failures — all of it. I was closed off. I felt stupid asking for help. Until I was forced to. A few months ago, a lot of things didn’t work out, a few things came to a head and I had to borrow money from my Mum to pay rent and to survive. The shame I felt was overwhelming…until I spoke to a few buddies of mine that had started companies and 100% of them had to borrow money or ask for help at some point.
Brene Browns says ‘If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs 3 ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement. If you put that same amount of sham in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive’
So if you need help ask for it! Ask for it early and ask for it often. Be compassionate with yourself there is no shame.
And so in conclusion..
What are we doing here? Why are we celebrating fuckups or failure? I think it's important even though sometimes I think we are in serious danger of fetishising failure. I hope that's not why we are here. Because it’s not about fucking up for the sake of fucking up. That would be masochistic. I suppose tonight is really about being that little bit courageous. It’s about knowing that you are not alone. It’s about taking stock of your life and if there is a real source of friction, taking the tiniest step towards doing something about it. Because no matter what you do, you are going to fuck up. So you might as well fuckup doing something worthwhile.