Lessons from Startup Culture: Redefining Failure

In our recent blog, Lessons from Startup Culture: Learning from a Minimum Viable Product, we examined how “the creation of an MVP itself isn’t the revelation – it’s the ability to learn and adjust based on the customer response that results.” One of startup culture’s strengths has always been the ability to take a big idea and pursue it, iterate it, or change it completely in the search for an end product that resonates with consumers.

In this way, successful startups have redefined failure as a pivot point instead of an end point. For larger, more “traditional” businesses seeking agility, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned.

Don’t Give Up, Pivot

The pivot, as defined by the team at Startups.co, is “a shift in business strategy to test a new approach regarding a startup’s business model or product after receiving direct or indirect feedback.” They note that this is a core tenet of lean methodology, which was elucidated by entrepreneur Eric Ries in his 2011 book, The Lean Startup. “Entrepreneurs that practice lean startup methodology are encouraged to question everything — from their initial idea, to their design choices, to any features they’re considering adding.” This questioning process requires soliciting feedback and being open to learning from consumers.

One example of this process comes from YouTube, which was not always the massive, eclectic video streaming platform we enjoy today. It began with a very different end goal in mind, as a hosting site for video profiles for online dating. The “bones” of the site (and app) that is ubiquitous today were mostly in place, but the audience was very small. As CB Insights writes, “Few people took advantage of YouTube’s value proposition, so its founders pivoted and let people upload videos of any kind.”

Sensing a lack of enthusiasm for their original concept and the opportunity to reach a much larger segment of consumers, the YouTube team expanded their idea of what their product could be. The result, obviously, is the most popular video hosting platform on the internet – one that has launched the careers of pop stars, provided space for experts and entertainers of all kinds, and built an entire new sub-economy for popular content.

Redefining Failure

If YouTube’s founders had succumbed to the “failure” of their initial idea, they would have lost out on the opportunity to build a product that eventually became an enormous success. Instead, they took what was good about the platform they had created and allowed the market to inform the direction in which it grew. The video streaming platform was their MVP – consumer feedback about the kind of content they wanted to see allowed them to create space for all different kinds of videos instead of clinging to the hope that video dating profiles would be enough. A similar story has played out in many of the products that now define the successes of the startup era.

Input on a concept should always be considered valuable, whether from team members, investors, or target consumers, and whether it confirms our own desires or not. Learning what prospective customers want is never “failure,” even when the feedback feels like “they hated it – we’re done for.” It’s only when we ignore the market in favor of our own stubbornness, ignoring input from people who might ultimately buy our product, that we truly fail.

This redefinition of failure will hopefully be a lasting legacy of startup culture. From small, agile teams to large, bureaucratic corporations, the way we process and react to “failure” determines whether we will ultimately succeed.


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