The true meaning of “Fail Harder”

Techies love catch phrases. Spend a few months (or minutes) working at a startup and you will no doubt see and hear a variety of the following:

“Fuck it. Ship it.”

“Keep calm & carry on.”

“DRY (don’t repeat yourself).”

“Fail Harder.”

These are often seen on brightly colored posters taped to the wall (or sometimes as stickers, stuck to the back of a computer screen).

It’s the tech world’s terse, contemporary update on the traditional corporate motivational poster. Perfect for the software engineer who believes in the tyranny of never saying in five words what you can say in four, and never saying in four what you can say in two.

Mark Zuckerberg is particularly famous for his use of such posters. On the day that Facebook IPO-ed, every Facebook employee came to work to find a poster on their desk that read:

“Stay Focused & Keep Shipping.”

Most of the time, I viewed these posters as clever wall dressing and didn’t think more of it. But one always irked me:

“Fail Harder”

Whenever I would come across such a poster, the straight-A student inside me would scream: no, no, failure isn’t good. This is ridiculous. Really the saying is “Fail Harder, so you will succeed sooner” but they just leave off the end for effect. What a ruse, I thought, they are just using reverse psychology! What they actually mean is you MUST succeed, they just don’t want to be direct about it.

I became a real-life Holden Caulfield, walking around startup offices muttering to myself: “What a bunch of phonies.”

And then, I founded my own startup.

And every last remnant of that type-A, perfectionist student inside me was beaten down by the relentless exposure to failure, large and small, and after months of resisting failure I grew exhausted, and out of exhaustion stopped resisting it.

And then my relationship to that poster began to soften.

The delusion that feeds you
In most instances, you begin a company after a long period of falling so deeply and irrationally in love with your product idea that you come to the woefully misbegotten conclusion that your company can’t but succeed.

How does everyone else not see this? You wonder to yourself, drunk on the self-satisfaction that you do see it, and you will get to be the lucky one who brings it into the world.

In the long run, this irrationality is your enemy, but in the beginning it’s crucial because what you are about to do is hard, and the heat of that delusional love will keep you warm on the many cold nights ahead.

Then it comes time to send your baby out into the world (Fuck it. Ship it. Right?) and it is your turn to be mercilessly judged by the harshest of juries: your users. If you are even lucky enough to have any.

Is your child really as beautiful as you thought? Do you find yourself having to explain its beauty to people, over and over? If you can even get them to stop and listen?

Are you screaming for attention, while everyone rushes past you en route to see what your competitor is doing?

Is your bank account balance doing a reverse hockey stick, careening dangerously fast towards zero?

And after long stretches of this, after your ego has been thoroughly dismantled, you grow too fatigued to fight for your idea anymore.

You finally let go of your fear of failure (because in fact, you have been failing for quite some time now), you wrap your arms around failure and say:

Ok, fine. I’m tired of being wrong. Tell me what is right.

Signal = Gold
Often, the only way to find what is right, is to first eliminate that which is wrong.

In entrepreneurship the most important thing is clear signal, positive or negative. Clarity is worth more than anything.

Of course we always want clear, positive signals (200,000 people visited my site the day it launched!) but clear negative signals are just as, if not more, valuable (we launched a product to a list of 10,000 and only 10 people bought it).

Not all positive signals last, but negative signals, especially the really negative ones, tell you to stop wasting your most precious resource (time) doing what you are doing, or at very least, change it dramatically.

And in those instances, failing fast and hard really is a gift. The faster and harder you fail, the more you will learn, the less time you will waste, and the closer and closer you will come to finding the answer.

The answer is out there, but it probably isn’t the first one you try.