Feature: Embracing f---ups: Global movement comes to Ottawa, changes attitudes about failure

f--- ups

In business as in life, failure can be a dirty word.

But if there is truth that you must fail before you succeed in business, why do so many entrepreneurs shy away from the subject?

In an effort to truly embrace failure, there is now a global movement called F---Up Nights, where professionals gather and presenters openly commiserate by telling their stories of failure.

“We were drinking mescal and we realized that we had all screwed-up businesses, but we had never shared those stories,” says Leticia Gasca, co-founder and director of F---Up Nights. “That was weird. We were talking about (our failures) for three hours. We ended up concluding that had been our most meaningful business conversation ever.”

Two weeks later, F---Up Nights was born. Eight months later, the movement had spread to 15 cities. In 2015, three years after the company started, they were it was in 71 cities across the world. And now the event has officially gone viral with events in 144 cities and 53 countries.

Ottawa is one of three Canadian cities hosting the event, along with Toronto and Calgary. Apparently, talking about failure is now in vogue.

“Some of the best stories are about how something totally crashed and burned,” says Jason Connell, organizer of F---Up Nights Ottawa.

“You can find any number of events where someone is willing to get up and say they hacked, they hustled, they did xyz and now they’re a huge success, but I don’t think it’s very often where you find an event where someone will stand up and say, ‘This really went to hell.’”

F---Up Nights also fuelled the creation of the Failure Institute, which enlisted universities for the sole purpose of studying business failures.

“We realized that there is almost no … quantitative research of business failure,” Garcas says.

If you’re wondering about the results, the No. 1 identified reason for business failure is insufficient income – something that Ottawa-based Cyril Moukarzel knows all too well.

The co-founder of eCelery, an online food service that delivered homemade quality foods to local doorsteps, Moukarzel was given the highest possible rating by the Carleton University Lead to Win incubator/accelerator program. His venture was growing fast and seemed poised for success before it suddenly closed shop.

“We did not calculate effectively how much runway we needed until we hit critical mass,” Moukarzel says.

“We had enough funding to start the business, we had enough funding to grow it, but we didn’t have enough funding to … go to all the cities in Canada, which is what we needed to do to be at scale.”

Moukarzel says his company needed bridge money from angel investors to sustain it until it could scale. When that didn’t materialize, the service was no longer financially viable.

“During my experience with eCelery, I’ve learned more than I’ve learned in my entire 23 other years of my life,” he says with a laugh, adding he was pulling 80-hour work weeks when business was really cooking.

“You grow on a whole new level. You start to see things in a different way. Starting a new business, which I will be doing quite soon, is going to be a lot easier now that I know some of the kinks and little details.”

During that time, Moukarzel says he was wearing a lot of “different hats,” forcing him to do marketing, HR, pitching and otherwise running the business side of the company.

Aydin Mirzaee also knows a thing or two about failure. While creating his biggest success to date, survey software company Fluidware, he pivoted several times before discovering a winning strategy. Fluidware was eventually purchased in 2014 by global software-as-a-service company SurveyMonkey.

That storybook ending isn’t typical. Many experts predict that 90 per cent of entrepreneurs fail. That’s not exactly comforting for new entrepreneurs, but Mirzaee says you’ve just got to go for it.

“It’s about jumping before you look to a certain extent,” he says, “because no matter how perfect the idea is, you’re going to fail. You’re going to have to pivot and pivot and pivot until you get it right. Sometimes people are waiting for the perfect business model or the perfect business that will be a $50-billion entity. As a result, they never end up actually acting. Or they’re afraid that because this idea’s not perfect, there’s a large chance of failure.”

Mirzaee wishes that Ottawa would itself pivot to become a more welcoming environment in which to discuss failure – in other words, more like Silicon Valley. Still, he thinks the local scene is changing.

His main takeaway from failure? Never give up.

“It takes a decade to build an overnight success,” he says.

As for the high failure rate, Tony Bailetti, director of Carleton’s Technology Innovation Management program and the Lead to Win program, thinks it’s more of a problem for startups that haven’t passed what he calls the “first wall.” He defines this as companies that are still pre-revenue.

Bailetti believes the success rate for businesses beyond that “first wall” will be much higher.

Whatever statistic you believe, everyone agrees that starting a business is hard.

“In Ontario, we are relying too much on government money,” says Bailetti. “We’re not paying enough attention to what the core of entrepreneurship is about. Mistake No. 1 is to confuse government money with customer money. That is a terrible thing to do.”

Bailetti says that not all dollars are created equal, and that a quick customer dollar is not the same as a government dollar, which often takes a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy to attain.

“I love government programs,” he says, “but they take time, it’s a distraction (and not a) substitute for customer dollars.”

Bailetti also bemoans the myth of “supermen entrepreneurs.”

“You can’t do it alone. You need people who are smarter than you are, and different than you are.”

Bailetti calls for diversity of skills in a startup, what he calls a “complete brain team.”

But at F---Up Nights, talking about failure isn’t necessarily about learning.

“You can learn from the mistakes of the presenters,” Connell says, “but I don’t think that’s the point of the event. It’s more about being comfortable, addressing failure and talking about failure.”

Connell wants people to share their stories to show a more realistic business community.

“All these overnight success stories, very often there are five to 10 things that didn’t work out before. For us, it kind of acts as therapy for the speakers, but for the attendees it says, ‘OK, here are some very smart, talented people and they f---ed up.’

“It’s cool, it happens.”