The sombre tones of Chopin’s funeral march is the soundscape to the gathering scores of people, some in suits, most in jeans and trainers, in a room on the fringes of the City of London. At the front, a tall wiry man in a dog-collar speaks to the assembled crowd. “Dearly beloved, we are here today . . . to show our sympathy and to give our comfort to those who feel the loss most and for ourselves to meditate on the brevity of life.”
“Vicar” Adam Hawley holds up a copy of the “good book”, Eric Ries’s The Lean Start-up. He reads aloud to the congregation: “When we fail, as so many of us do, we have a ready-made excuse: we didn’t have the right stuff. We weren’t visionary enough or weren’t in the right place at the right time.” The reading continues: “After more than 10 years as an entrepreneur, I came to reject that line of thinking. I have learned from both my own successes and failures and those of others that it’s the boring stuff that matters the most.”
So begins the Start-up Funeral, a gathering of start-up employees and would-be entrepreneurs, here at TechHub, the co-workspace and community of tech entrepreneurs, on Google’s Old Street campus. Overseeing the evening’s proceedings is not a real vicar but TechHub’s director of global projects. Two entrepreneurs — Sophie Newman-Sanders and Amit Rai — are here to discuss the deaths of their respective ventures, to be picked over by the assembled crowd in a kind of postmortem.
Mr Rai addresses the gathering on Trylista, a “start-up I murdered three years ago”. The engineer devised a website and app to enable people to pick clothes online which they could try on at home and return without paying upfront. The epiphany that this business was doomed came when someone in a meeting asked for his opinion on a fashion show. He realised he had no interest in fashion. “It dawned on me I didn’t care about this industry.”
Taking part in the funeral presentation, he says, has helped him draw a line. “There is a difficulty as a sole trader knowing when to throw in the towel.” He wondered whether he was being lazy or defeatist.
Writing the presentation was a useful way of distilling the reasons. After he wound up his business, he found that applying for jobs meant he was putting a positive spin on his company’s failings. “In a job interview you say things that won’t make you look bad — you’re not brutally honest.”
Today he has started another company, Coo, an app for parents to share information. “I care about this. I’m a parent. It’s a thing I want to fix for myself.”
Such events are not new. TechHub first ran a start-up funeral in 2014; since then it has held them in Madrid and will run one in Warsaw next month. Before that, there was FailCon, a one-day conference started in San Francisco in 2009, to analyse entrepreneurial failure. At that time the topic was rarely discussed. Today, however, failure has come out of the shadows and “fail fast, fail often” has become a Silicon Valley mantra.
Steffan Bankier, who ran a similar event to the Start-up Funeral in New York last year, was taken aback by the enthusiastic response from entrepreneurs willing to talk publicly about their failures. He believes that people put on a front at networking events and are “itching for the opportunity to break through it”. However, he concedes that the people who were willing to speak did so because they had turned their careers around. “It’s far easier to talk about failure once you’ve succeeded,” he says. In his own case, he ran the nights after winding down his wine business before moving on to a senior sales job at Alice, a hospitality management start-up.
For Ms Newman-Sanders, co-founder of Synnapps, which connects businesses in the developing world using mobile technology, the purpose of speaking at Tuesday’s start-up funeral was to share her experiences of the failings of the UK operation, which was her baby, and to warn others against making the same mistakes. Also important was finding common ground. “Ninety per cent of the time being an entrepreneur is ultra lonely. Employees have lunch without you. I craved a feeling of camaraderie.”
Putting the presentation together helped her take responsibility: “If I hadn’t been preparing for this I wouldn’t have looked at the mistakes I made so closely.” It has been cathartic, she says, to face up to her own failings. With hindsight she can see that she forced her own vision of the company on to her former business partner and refused to see that he had not fully bought into it. Before, she did not have time to reflect. “I was so desperate to sell the idea that whenever it looked like the funding might stop I would add more bells and whistles.” Now she can see she was blind to the problems. “I heard what I wanted to hear . . . I didn’t listen.”
Start-up funerals serve a purpose, says Henry Kressel, co-author of If You Really Want to Change the World: “They can be useful if case histories are discussed and the discussion highlights where key decisions made were faulty.”
Brad Feld, a US venture capitalist based in Colorado, has held informal wakes for companies. The key, he says, is to celebrate the life of the company rather than obsess about the failure. “It’s like a normal wake — celebrate the person’s, or the company’s, life. And then move on and get back to work.”
John Mullins, associate professor of management practice at London Business School, says it is important for entrepreneurs to give themselves a version of an exit interview on their business. “You need to step back and try to be objective and bring other people’s point of view as we’re often too close.”
Travis Lee Street presented his own lessons about Style Gauge, a fashion analytics company at a previous start-up funeral. He points out that broadcasting your failures if you have spent your own money is different from having burnt through investors’ funds: “I certainly wouldn’t be so forthcoming if my venture was VC or angel funded because there are strong relationships behind the scenes.” He would worry that divulging decisions when investors were involved would be indiscreet, disrespectful and could burn bridges.
However, he believes there is a place for venture capitalists to speak at such events about why they funded the business and what went wrong from their perspective: “It all has to do with hearing from the true risk-taking individual, the person with the most to lose.”
After an evening of jokes and practical lessons at Tuesday’s TechHub funeral, a member of the audience asks about the emotional fallout. Ms Newman-Sanders confesses that she did not let on to friends and family how bad things were until it was too late. She recommends counselling.
For Mr Rai, the answer was meeting other failed entrepreneurs. “We did lots of drinking. We would sit for two hours discussing our failures.” But ultimately it was finding a corporate job and getting busy, before starting another business — despite his pledge to stay off the entrepreneurial life.
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