A recap of my FailCon ATL presentation

Through my work with the fantastic folks at GA Atlanta, I was invited to speak at FailCon ATL earlier today. Below are my slides with a somewhat cleaned up transcript of the talk. If you were in attendance today, thank you so much for the warm reception and great questions.

The theme of FailCon ATL 2015 is “If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. I’ve failed a lot so I’ve perhaps grown a lot.

I’m here because I’ve failed a lot. I’m going to share just a few of my own stories of how I’ve failed in big and relatively small ways, and offer a lesson on what to do when (not if) you fail, because while we say that we “celebrate failure”, especially in the startup world, we lie to ourselves, because we do not celebrate failure. We spit on it and kick it to the curb and distance ourselves from it.

Let’s start with the very first failure. God told Adam he could do anything he wanted, except eat from the tree of knowledge of good & evil. Satan didn’t tempt Adam. He tempted Eve. Adam had been given the responsibility of Eve’s well-being, and he failed, and then blamed it on Eve, who blamed it on the serpent, who (my interpretation) shrugged, and said, “Dude, whatever.” The Fall of Man was Adam’s responsibility. He failed to lead and protect Eve.

Anyone recognize this name? He joined a tech startup in the mid-70s. He made the decision to sell his 10% stake in the company very early on, for less than $3,000. Had he stayed with the little startup, his shares of stock would be worth more than $60 billion dollars today. The startup was Apple.

Stephen Covey famously said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” Adam decided to stand by and do nothing as Eve disobeyed God, and then Adam jumped in and did the same, knowing what he was doing. Then he blamed it on Eve, and Eve blamed it on the serpent. The made bad decisions, and did not take responsibility for their mistakes.

The game was tied with just a few minutes left. If I score on this PK, we win. The opposing GK is a friend of mine, with whom I played soccer for years prior to this game. He walks out to the penalty spot, shakes by hand, and gives me a little slap on the head. I was freaked out, didn’t know what just happened, and he saved the PK. We lost the game. I failed. As a 15-year-old kid, I had no idea how to take responsibility for that, so I made excuse after excuse.

This one hurt worse. Semi-finals of the GA State High School soccer tournament. 0-0 through regulation and 2 OTs. I made my PK. Our 5th PK is to be taken by a guy who drills them all day in practice. Unstoppable. But he tries to place the ball, instead of hammering it like in practice. Misses 10 feet left. Walton HS wins over Heritage in PKs to go to the state finals. I was the captain. I failed to lead my teammate and remind him of how good he was in practice.

I turned down an appointment to the Naval Academy. Instead, I chose to go to college where they drank huge amounts of beer and went to Steeplechase parties seemingly every weekend. That was my decision.

This is not my mom, but it does remind me of the time I went skiing with my parents in Yosemite over Christmas break my junior year of college. I had skied a couple of times before, and I was 20 and fearless. I skied down black diamonds, full yard sale on every slope, having the time of my life. At the end of the day, my mom boasted that she hadn’t fallen once. It hit me later that she hadn’t fallen down because she was not trying anything out of her comfort zone, which is just fine for her. But it made me understand that, if you’re going to ski black diamonds, you’re going to get wet.

After CWNP was up and running, the 4 principles wanted to create other revenue streams. Peachtree Wireless was a corporate training firm with several clients, but really just one: Motorola. It was 2008. We went from $0-$750k in 6 months, but didn’t see that it was 2008. Motorola cancelled and disappeared. Vestivus was setup to sell short, instructional videos for $5 each in the summer of ’06, just before YouTube got bought by Google for $1.6 billion. In 2013, deductmor – an app for self-employed people to save, store, and add up their expense receipts – was about to launch, when I saw a bright shiny object, aka “a B2B opportunity.” I took eye off the ball, pivoted to CD8A, and ran out of runway. Double fail.

During the same time as CWNP and Vestivus, my wife and I were devastated to learn that we could not have children. Is that a “failure”? I don’t know, but it certainly felt like one when no words would console or lift up the woman I loved, and she felt like a failure as a woman. Sometimes failure is very much out of your control, but that doesn’t change the nature of failure.

There are too many fails here to list in 10 blog posts. What started off as 2 guys with $250 and a bad idea turned into a nice little business, until we lost focus, created the aforementioned failed businesses, and tried to grow CWNP in 5 directions with no plan and even less knowledge. Three of the initial 4 principles left, leaving me as the last man standing. It took Charlie Paparelli telling me, “Get your ass back in there and FIX IT!” for me to find my focus again. I turned it around, paid off all the debt, made it profitable, and then sold it because I got bored.

This is my business today: content marketing and content strategy. Last month, a client fired me. It’s not “we got fired”, because right now, it’s just me. “I” got fired.

These are just the tip of the iceberg of fails in my life and career. There are many, many more. They always suck. Always. But over hundreds – thousands? – of failures, I’ve learned very slowly that when (again, not if) I fail, I must do one thing to make it stop hurting, to get through it, etc.

Not “celebrate” it. That’s crap. Nobody celebrates failure like they celebrate getting to $1M ARR in recurring SaaS revenue. No, I mean “own” it by taking complete, 100%, total responsibility for it.

I got fired. I missed that PK. I led the teams that created 4 failed businesses. Adam did nothing. I said “no” to an appointment to Annapolis. I couldn’t have children. I was the CEO during all phases of CWNP, including all the bad decisions and the other 3 principles leaving. I said nothing to my teammate when he walked out, obviously scared out of his mind, to take that PK.

It might be to yourself. It might be to a mentor. That meeting with Charlie Paparelli was so refreshing and cathartic, and all I did was say, “Charlie, I just want out. I hate this.” My wife and I had to say “we cannot have children” so we could have the very real conversation with our pastor, who encouraged us to adopt our 2 kids 10 years ago.

Fix what you broke. Tell the person or people most affected by your failure these words: “I failed. It’s my fault. I did it. My decision. I’m sorry.” I had to tell my wife last month, “I got fired by my client.” But sometimes you cannot make it right with the other person or people. Sometimes you can only fully confess it to yourself: I was wrong. Own it.

You then give yourself the freedom to move on. When you wrong someone, and they’re so steaming mad at you that all they can do is scream and yell, and you stand up, and humbly say, “You’re right. I screwed up. It’s my fault. I was wrong,” the air is removed from their bubble, and they have nothing left to say. You then have permission to move on, and you must move on…

In Robert Hastings’ poem, “The Station”, he describes the twin thieves that rob us of today. The first is regret. We spend all our time mourning over our mistakes and failures of yesterday that we can’t see the joy in today. If you don’t come clean, confess that it was your fault, own it, admit it, take complete responsibility for your actions, you simply cannot move on. You’ll live in regret.

And because you live in regret of your mistakes and failures, they hide your vision for the future in fear of failure again. Why are you afraid of failure? As sure as you’re going to close this browser window and move on to the next blog or email, you are going to fail at something sometime. It will happen. I guarantee it. Why fear it? Look at how many times I’ve failed, and yet here I sit, on the other side of the internet, typing these words, growing another business up from nothing, moving on from the last failure.

I conclude with this question, to which there is but one answer. You cannot control anyone else. You cannot control your circumstances. You cannot control the market forces. You cannot control the political landscape. You cannot control the weather or the dollar or the economy.

The only thing you can control is your decision of how to respond when you fail.

What do you think?