Notes from Failcon 2012 – part 1

Here are my notes from Failcon 2012, a conference about learning from failure. You regular readers know I love to write and study failure (see what to do when things go wrong).

It’s hard to make an event about failure work as most people most of the time feel shame about failure, even though it’s an unavoidable part of success and learning. It’s a fantastic idea for an event and I’m glad it exists. I’m sure it’s much harder to get speakers to speak here than other events, despite the payoff for everyone being much higher. The event went well, although the quality and the nature of the talks varied widely.

I had the opportunity to speak in the morning about how to learn from failure, and took notes on every other talk I attended. Part 2 of my notes are here.

#1. Chip Conley, former CEO of Joie De Vivre Hotels, spoke about the role of emotions in failure and success. He didn’t linger much on the many failures of his life, as dramatic as they were, and moved on to suggestions for what he has learned.

  • Survived 2000 downturn and the great receision
  • Decided to reinterpret Maslow’s hiearchy into something simpler: Survive / Succeed / Transform
  • Which led to Money / Recognition / Sense of meaning, as the basis for their compensation model
  • Two useful equations:
    • Despair = suffering – meaining
    • Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

Late in his career he felt like a prisoner in his own company.  “I didn’t want to be CEO anymore”. He offered that personal crisis follows business crisis. Some of his friends that are entrepreneurs committed suicide, his son was put in prison, and he fainted on stage during a talk. He wrote his new book as a CEO who didn’t understand emotions and failure forced him to reevaluate.

He refered to Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as a book that helped him.

#2: Suneel Gupta (GroupOn): The Case Against Someday.

I really wish he didn’t use Prezi. It didn’t help him at all. Some of his slides were unreadable too (low contrast text over background image = readability fail). He’s a fine speaker technically, but his material was a collection of tips and stories that needed more structure for me to follow. I had a hard time capturing his talk for that reason.

  • He told a story about working for Clinton. He was asked, as an intern, to close the door, by Rahm Imanuel, after Clinton entered the room. Gupta was so distracted by being in front of Clinton he completely forgot.
  • The second act is the scariest and unsexiest act of a startup.
  • He showed a video clip of Brian Glazer on the Charlie Rose show, who thought he could jump from being a law clerk to being a producer. He was told what ‘do you have? money? power? No, you have nothing.’ He was told to grab a piece of paper and start writing, and that was something he could own.
  • Parkinsons law is critical in the first act, because it helps you get to the second act, which many startups struggle to get to.
  • He showed a study of books written by Republicans and Democrats, and how narrow and separate the sources were (Was the point confirmation bias? I wasn’t sure. He went fast here so I couldn’t catch a name to look up online for more details.)
  • Interaction > Opinion – watching users gives a better perspective than people talking about what they think users will do (nod to basic user research methods).
  • Then he showed an embarrassing video of GroupOn employees doing a Gangam Style video. I really don’t know why he showed this. I think he was making a point about treating people well, but I’m not sure.
  • He finished by offering it’s amazing to work on the web, and in 2012, because we can fail very quickly and learn, unlike entrepreneurs in other fields and eras


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