June 27, 2015

“Culture of Failure” at Silicon Valley

[First published Oct 2012]

The “Culture of Failure” at Silicon Valley


It just struck me..

This stretch of 90 miles or so of ex-swamp land called Silicon Valley, with its low-rise buildings and spread-out greenery, feels more suburbia than the powerhouse of innovation and center of the digital new economy. I mean on looks alone, the place seems ought not to have had such a disproportionate share of global influence, world-changing companies and individuals. 

Yet, sprinkled amongst this sparse landscape, ducked away behind the greenery and giant parking lots, are some of the most dominant and influential giants of innovation, companies and personalities that absolutely has changed societies and the world, forever.

One cannot help but be dazzled.. What is it that makes this place so incredible?! So unique?!?

What makes it continually able to produce world-changing leaders, year after year, generation after generation?

Driving down from the 101 Highway, one passes Oracle, Salesforce, Facebook, Google, Cisco, HP, Intel, all the greatest names in tech dotted along the highway, one after another.  Walking down University Ave in “downtown” Palo Alto, one has to be fairly ingrained in the tech industry to recognize, and be blown-away, by the calibre of world-beating companies that are hosted in the various residential-looking houses with nondescript nameplates

And then it struck me.

Silicon Valley owes its successes to its culture of failure.

Silicon Valley is not a system, nor (merely) a location, it is a culture!

I now believe this is due to its culture of embracing failure, not success.

Ironically (or perhaps obviously), it is this culture that has enabled its companies and people to be outrageously successful throughout the world.

Only by accepting, and indeed embracing failure, will one free oneself from not taking the risks, not thinking big, not launching..

How many failures those successful ones have had along the way (or pivots, are they are now called), only they know themselves.

(But for a glimpse of how much it took before the likes of even Facebook or Weebly truly took off, just check out the interviews from startupschool.org)

Many people, companies, even entire cultures, mandate a perfect set of plans before taking action. Especially when it comes to entering a major market. I have now learnt to recognise this inaction as the most clear sign of a fear for failure. The Silicon Valley history and experience tells us, that it is only through market action, that allows one to end up with the best plans, best technology, best team.

It’s interesting, and also ironic, that people from all over the world come to Silicon Valley (myself included) seeking advice, capital, resources, etc to learn how to be successful. But the first lesson must actually start with them learning about how to accept and deal with failure!

If the worst that can happen is already part of your expectations, what else can hold you back?

(By Victor Jiang)