The Red Badge of Courage: Helping Overachievers to Manage and Process Failure

When I lived in France for five years I was often asked to compare it to Silicon Valley in an attempt to explain why — in the land of Descartes, Fourier, and Laplace, in a country where the nation’s top university (École Polytechnique) is a military engineering school that wraps together MIT and West Point, in a place that naturally reveres engineers and scientists, why was there not a stronger tech startup ecosystem?

My decade-plus-old answer is here: Is Silicon Valley Reproducible? [1]

My answer to the question was “no” and the very first reason I listed was “cultural attitudes towards failure.” In France (at least at that time) failure was a death sentence. In Silicon Valley, I wrote, failure was a red badge of courage, a medal of valor on one’s resume for service in the startup wars, and a reference to the eponymous classic written by Stephen Crane.

In this post, I want to explore two different aspects of the red badge of courage. First, from a career development perspective, how one should manage the presence of such badges on your resume. And second, from an emotional perspective, how thinking of startup failure as a red badge of courage can help startup founders and employers process what was happened.

Managing Failure: Avoiding Too Many Consecutive Red Badges

In Silicon Valley you’ll often hear adages like “failure is a better teacher than success,” but don’t be too quick to believe everything you hear. While failure is certainly not a scarlet letter in Silicon Valley, companies nevertheless hire for a track record of success. In the scores of C-level position specifications that I’ve read and collected over the years, I cannot recall a single one that ever listed any sort of failure as required experience.

We talk as if we love all-weather sailors, but when it comes to actually hiring people — which often requires building consensus around one candidate in a pool [2] — we seem to prefer the fair-weather ones. Back in the day, we’d all love a candidate who went from Stanford to Oracle to Siebel to Salesforce [3].

But, switching metaphors, I sometimes think Silicon Valley is like a diving competition that forgot the degree of difficulty rating. Hand a CEO $100M, 70% growth company — and the right to burn $10M to $15M per quarter — and it will likely go public in a few years, scoring the company a perfect 10 — for executing a swan dive, degree of difficulty 1.2.

Now, as an investor, I’ll put money into such swan dives whenever I can. But, as an operator, remember that the charmed life of riding in (or even driving) such a bus doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the shocks of the regular world.

Consider ServiceMax who, roughly speaking, was left at the altar by Salesforce with a product built on the Salesforce platform and business plan most thought predicated on an acquisition by Salesforce. That team survived that devastating shock and later sold the company for $900M. That’s a reverse 4½ somersault in pike position, degree of difficulty 4.8. Those folks are my heroes.

So, in my estimation, if Silicon Valley believes that failure is a better teacher than success, I’d say that it wants you to have been educated long ago — and certainly not in your most recent job. That means we need to look at startup failure as a branding issue and the simple rule is don’t get too many red badges in a row on your LinkedIn or CV.

Using Grateful Dead concert notation, if your CV looks like Berkeley –> Salesforce –> failure –> Looker, then you’re fine. You’ve got one red badge of courage that you can successful argue was a character-building experience. However, if it looks like Berkeley –> Salesforce –> failure –> failure –> failure, then you’ve got a major positioning problem. You’ve accidentally re-positioned yourself from being the “Berkeley, Salesforce” person to the “failed startup person.” [4]

How many consecutive red badges is too many? I’d say three for sure, maybe even two. A lot of it depends on timing [5].

Practically, it means that after one failed startup, you should reduce your risk tolerance by upping the quality bar on your next gig. After two failed startups, you should probably go cleanse and re-brand yourself via duty at a large successful vendor. After a year or two, you’ll be re-positioned as a Brand-X person and in a much better position to again take some career risk in the startup world [6].

Processing Failure: Internalizing the Red Badge Metaphor

This second part of this post deals with the emotional side of startup failure, which I’m going to define quite broadly as materially failing to obtain your goals in creating or working at a startup. Failure can range from laying off the entire staff and selling the furniture to getting an exit that doesn’t clear the preference stack [7] to simply getting a highly disappointing result after putting 10 years into building your company [8]. Failure, like success, takes many forms.

But failures also have several common elements:

  • Shock and disappointment. Despite knowing that 90% of startups fail, people are invariably shocked when it happens to them. Remember, startup founders and employees are often overachievers who’ve never experienced a material setback before [9].
  • Anger and conflict. In failed startups there are often core conflicts about which products to build, markets to target, when to take financing, and whether to accept buy-out offers.
  • Economic loss. Sometimes personal savings are lost along with the seed and early-round investors’ money. With companies that fail-slow (as opposed to failing-fast), opportunity cost becomes a significant woe [10].

For the people involved in one — particular the founders and C-level executives — a failed startup feels Janis Joplin singing:

Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. And take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby! Oh, oh, break it! Break another little bit of my heart now Darling yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

I was reminded of this the other day when I had a coffee with a founder who, after more than four years, had just laid of his entire team and sold the furniture the week before.

During the meeting I realized that there are three things people fresh from failed startups should focus on when pursuing their next opportunity:

  • You need to convince yourself that it was positive learning experience that earned you a red badge of courage. If you don’t believe it, no one else will — and that’s going to make pursuing a new opportunity more difficult. People will try to figure out if you’re “broken” from the experience. Convincing them you’re not broken starts out with convincing you. (Don’t be, by the way. Startups are hard. Cut yourself some slack.)

  • You need to suppress your natural desire to tell the story. I’m sure it’s a great story, full of drama and conflict, but does telling it help you one iota in pursuing a new opportunity? No. After leaving MarkLogic — which was a strong operational success but without an investor exit — I was so bad at this that one time a VC stopped me during a CEO interview and said, “wow, this is an amazing story, let me get two of my partners to hear it and can you start over?” While I’m sure they enjoyed the colorful tale, I can assure you that the process didn’t result in a dynamite CEO offer. Tell your story this way: “I [founded | worked at] a startup for [X] years and [shut it | sold it] when [thing happened] and we realized it wasn’t going to work. It was a great experience and I learned a lot.” And then you move on. The longer you talk about it, the worse it’s going to go.

  • You need to convince prospective employers that, despite the experience, you can still fit in a round hole. If you were VP of product management (PM) before starting your company, was a founder/CEO for two years, and are now pursuing a VP of PM role, the company is going to wonder about two things: (1) as per the above, are you broken as a result of the experience and (2) can you successfully go back into a VP of PM role. You’ll need to convince them that PM has always been your passion, that you can easily go back and do it again, and in fact, that you’re quite looking forward to it. Only once that’s been accomplished, you can try to convince them that you can do PM even better than before as a result of the experience. While your natural tendency will probably be to make this argument, remember that it is wholly irrelevant if the company doesn’t believe you can return to the role. So make sure you’ve won the first argument before even entertaining the second.

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Notes

[1] A lot has presumably changed since then and while I sit on the board of a French startup (Nuxeo), I no longer feel qualified, nor is the purpose of this essay, to explore the state of tech entrepreneurship in France.

[2] And ergo presumably reduces risk-taking in the process.

[3] And not without good reason. They’ve probably learned a lot of best practices, a lot about scaling, and have built out a strong network of talented coworkers.

[4] Think of how people at a prospective employer might describe you in discussing the candidates. (“Did you prefer the Stanford/Tableau woman; the CMU/Salesforce man; or the poor dude who did all those failed startups?”)

[5] Ten years of impressive growth at Salesforce followed by two one-year failures looks quite different than three years at Salesforce followed by two three-year failures. One common question about failures is: why did you stay so long?

[6] And see higher quality opportunities as a result.

[7] Meaning investors get back all or part of what they are entitled to, but there is nothing leftover for founders and employees.

[8] And, by extrapolation, expected that they never world.

[9] For example, selling the company for $30M, and getting a small payout via an executive staff carve-out.

[10] Think: “with my PhD in AI/ML, I could have worked at Facebook for $1M per year for the past six years, so in addition to the money I’ve lost this thing has cost me $6M in foregone opportunity.”

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