‘Failure is only feedback’

By William Channer on August 3rd, 2012

I remember one day at university, when a close friend dashed into my room with his laptop. “Read this,” he said. He showed me an article entitled: ‘The million dollar student’. It was about Alex Tew, who, through his simple venture, the Million Dollar Homepage, became a millionaire at 21. I remember thinking: if the UK was going to witness the next big thing, Alex was a good candidate. But things haven’t turned out that way.

Alex currently resides in San Francisco, where he has worked for Monkey Inferno, a new incubator created by the founders of Bebo, Michael and Xochi Birch. This was a curious choice for onlookers anticipating the second act.

Interviewing Tew, I asked him why he was working for someone else. He explained: “My previous company, Popjam, failed, and since I’ve been doing my own thing for the past 10 years, it was an exciting opportunity to pick up a lot of learning without being ultimately responsible for a while.” Tew sees learning from more experienced entrepreneurs in order to prevent failure as essential to growth.

Start-up culture in London has been indoctrinated by this, “ready, fire, aim” approach – dangerous in a climate without the talent that saturates Silicon Valley. The problem is not the doing – we have an abundance of that – but the thinking before the doing. British entrepreneurs tend not to think very hard, instead following the latest “methodologies” and fads. The most enduring, the “fail fast” philosophy, has done little for the UK’s technology industry, except create more failures.

I say this not to pour salt on the wounds of who that have already failed, but to warn others against sharing a similar fate. Failure, like anything else, can be divided into good and bad. Alex Tew is a fine example of an entrepreneur trying to think first, and fail as little as possible.

Only good failure offers a feedback mechanism that can be applied in the pursuit of learning: one senses heat, moves one’s hand closer, feels an increase in heat and knows not to move any further. One saves one’s hand from burning. Bad failure is to ignore the burning sensations and thrust your hand into the flame.

“The danger of success”, says Tew, “is that it can increase your expectations of future ventures. The success of the Million Dollar Homepage was not a good teacher for me in learning about business or success. I thought I was king of the world, but in reality I was very naive. I thought that within a year I’d be doing something a hundred times bigger.”

How does he know that what he’s learnt in the past will be relevant to what he’s doing now? Tew explains: “Through doing, you get better at working with other people, hiring, judging whether somebody is going to be good on your team. You get a better understanding of yourself.

“Nevertheless, the main thing is you have to enjoy what you do and be a student the whole time. The ultimate failure is when you stop trying.”

The UK has stigma where failure is concerned. Doubtless that’s the route of all the well-intentioned bleating about failure. Some argue that a fear of failure paralyses our start-up scene, but perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. It scares the timid. It prepares the daring. Imagine a marketplace full of unqualified, unsure, uncertain entrepreneurs. [You don’t have to imagine them: just head down to Google Campus. — Ed]

More of us should walk in Alex Tew’s footsteps. We should be willing to learn from somebody else and be willing to take that time to learn. Because arrogance is only a virtue when it is supplemented by genius.

At some point, the right opportunity will arise, and then it will be fitting to go into the battlefield again, but this time fully-armed. My interview with Alex Tew captures a fundamental point: success will be inevitable, “as long as you keep learning”.

Listen to the audio of this interview over at Dorm Room Tycoon.