Fail Often and Fast: The Secret of Silicon Valley Success

Bridges vol. 41, October 2014 / Feature

By Luigi Caputo, Alpbach News Magazine

To succeed in life, you first must fail. This is not a scientific law. It’s the philosophy of the Silicon Valley, the best place in the world for technological ideas to take off. “Fail early, fail fast, fail often” is the mantra of techy entrepreneurs. In its 2014 coverage of the Technology Symposium, Alpbach News Magazine took a deeper look into the rapidly changing world of technology.

It may look seem a contradiction. But in the place where Google, Facebook, and Twitter were born, professors teach young engineers how to accept failure. “It becomes a bad thing only if we aren’t able to learn from mistakes,” says Buddy D. Ratner, professor of chemical engineering at Washington State University, who chaired the panel “Innovation and the Culture of Failure” at the European Alpbach forum in August. 

In Silicon Valley, many projects collapse after a few years. Not everyone has the chance to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. Many start-ups have faced different types of difficulty and failed, but that doesn’t mean their founders are failures. “Many people that have changed the world have started from failure,” declared Ratner. Examples include Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates: All failed in their fields once, only to transform their losses into success.

At Stanford University, professors encourage students to make their ideas concrete, not simply study theory. James Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford and speaker at the Alpbach panel, said: “What we try to do is to cultivate a culture in which people want to be innovators and be creative.” To do this, the American university organizes contests in which the engineering students must think of how to make their ideas concrete. They assemble teams with economists, lawyers, and IT experts, and resolve common start-up problems, most of the time resulting in failure.

“For us, the most important thing is to create an environment with smart people who want to solve the problems of humanity,” says Plummer. And Stanford provides this kind of context. "It doesn’t matter how many people fail, because to have a great idea you have to test your ability and learn from the mistakes.”

This positive view of failure is pervasive throughout Silicon Valley. In 2012 the Office of Technology Licensing of Stanford University received 504 proposals, although only 36 tech companies eventually generated more than $100,000. The question was raised as to what happens to people in programs that didn’t make the cut? “They try to learn from their mistakes and build another company. You have to create many start-ups and face many failures to set up a successful project,” explains Professor Plummer. Young professionals in Silicon Valley work to be the next Mark Zuckerberg through high investments in potentially profitable tech startups.

Still, Stanford works to focus students on aspects other than making money. “We explain to our guys that it’s more important to solve problems to allow humanity’s growth,” says Plummer. "There are very interesting problems to solve in the world and many of our students want to help people. But naturally we have young entrepreneurs who try to create something like Google.” 

Failure is an established concept in the US, but this is not the case in Europe. Europeans fear the fallouts of failure because of different concepts of education, finance, and success. Panelist Friedrich Printz, a member of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department at Stanford University, explains the difference: “In Europe everybody can have a solid education in a prestigious university. But this creates a culture of failure because many students don’t finish their coursework. In the United States only a few students can enter a University like Stanford. This encourages them to do their best.” He concluded that having a culture that runs from failure is a key reason behind Europe's lack of a start-up culture. In order to build successful and internationally competitive new companies like those available on other continents, the European start-up culture first needs to accept failure before cultivating success.

Luigi Caputo is an Italian journalist interested in innovation, start-ups, and digital journalism. He works for Sky Italy and Huffington Post Italy. He was a member of Alpbach Media Academy 2014.