Dare To Fail: The Awakening Of The European Failure Culture

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Europe has an attitude problem towards entrepreneurship because of its high potential for failure. By contrast, celebrating failure has achieved cult status in Silicon Valley. The happy medium for Europeans is in understanding what failure actually is: doing nothing.

When Two Worlds Collide

One of the defining differences between entrepreneurial cultures in the United States and Europe is their respective approach to “failure”. These approaches can literally seem like day and night. The U.S. is well known for its tolerance of entrepreneurial failures, where the emphasis, correctly (as with anything in life), is always: Try again, try harder, and the only real loser is the fighter who remains down for the count. Indeed, the mantra in Silicon Valley has become “fail often, fail fast” (though there are many objections to this oversimplification), the governing principle being that the more mistakes are made earlier on, the faster entrepreneurs learn and the better their business models become for future attempts.

In Europe, by contrast, entrepreneurism has historically been discouraged precisely on the basis that it will possibly end in failure, failure is shameful, and therefore that employment with established businesses is worthy of far more respect. This attitude has permeated European attitudes for generations, buttressed by varying social democratic models emphasizing social security over free enterprise, a necessary corrective to forms of capitalism in which not everyone can compete on the same level, but which has also had the effect of erecting far more bureaucratic barriers to free enterprise and regulations than in the U.S. One consequence of this has been that Europe’s startup scene is materializing markedly slower by comparison, its ecosystem is deeply fragmented, and its products are often derivative of American innovation. Why bother to compete?, then, say some. For European entrepreneurs, staring across the pond longingly at a bustling Silicon Valley can often feel like a lonely experience.

In Europe, then, failure is perceived as a negative, hushed up, whispered about and hidden like the crazy old uncle in the attic. But Europeans may not have the luxury of this perception much longer. Employment rates remain lethargic, with close to 10% out of work and unemployment hovering close to the 20 million mark in the EU-28. Some of the reasons for this are structural, such as the traditional economy being overhauled by new forms of technology, requiring constant re-training, and the broader disappearance of jobs since the economic crisis. But it also means that with less opportunity, more individuals across generations who are looking for work are being compelled to consider the option of setting up their own businesses. By definition, this means more people will be forced to adopt an entrepreneurial mind-set. Growing pains aside, this could have the benefits of loosening restrictions on business, something the European Commission is actively pursuing, and fostering greater inter-generational cooperation and between sectors. But what does this mean for the culture of failure in Europe?

Why Do We Fall?

There are some signs that European attitudes may be changing, starting with the noticeable uptick in start-up activity in recent years, some moderate demonstrable successes, and, with necessity being the mother of invention, an emerging mind-set among individuals that taking a risk and failing may be preferable to the biggest risk of all: doing nothing. In this light, negativity has more to do with the remaining, often unpredictable and seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead, than with the idea of entrepreneurship itself. And severe cultural challenges do remain: individuals may hesitate because they fear picking the wrong career path in an uncertain economic environment, there is a lack of intellectual capital (e.g., university graduates) in the startup scene by comparison to the U.S., and there are significant difficulties involved in raising financial capital, which are related to the deficit of intellectual capital and the fragmented ecosystem.

There is, moreover, also a disparity between the “fail often, fail fast” mantra bandied around in Silicon Valley and the actual reality of many U.S. entrepreneurs, where failure can be difficult to recognize before it’s too late, and venture capital and investors can have an attention span of days, if not hours. The idea that everything “takes off” because it’s Silicon Valley, and then the puncturing of this illusion and the dawning realization this is only one side of an entrepreneurial life fraught with challenges and failures, can be even more demoralizing for European Founders already wrestling with additional mountains of bureaucratic red tape and a seemingly half-empty investment well.

The Happy Medium

The best lies are usually those containing a component of truth. “Fail often, fail fast” seems an easy way to describe the inevitable success around the corner if only one has failed enough times, with the phrase completely glossing over the suffering such an ideological approach can inflict and it being unclear what, exactly, enough times is. This being said, failure is inevitable, and it is necessary, it being the ineluctable component of any experience, and not just entrepreneurship. The benefit of failure should be seen less as a macrocosm of inevitable triumph “in the end” than as an unending series of lessons leading to a collection of smaller triumphs along the way. Clearly, where entrepreneurship itself can triumph is precisely by incorporating as much experience as possible, which is a universalising prerogative in its own right, and not copyrighted by Silicon Valley. And here, Europeans may have their own edge:

Considering the vast diversification of nations, cultures, practices, educational backgrounds, and skills across the European continent, the free movement of intellectual capital across borders, and the increasing entrepreneurial mind-set across generations out of economic necessity, European startups are in a unique position to capitalize on this constellation of circumstances by incorporating as many diverse individuals as possible into their enterprise. This enables an aggregation of organic “fail often, fail fast” experiences that have contributed to the tool kits of individuals from all walks of life, considerably broadening the operational horizon of the startup and enriching its ideas. From this perspective, the negativity associated with entrepreneurship in Europe is really just a front for the negativity of increasingly remaining outside opportunity and getting left behind. Conversely, as StartUs founder David R. Prasser suggests,

“having an entrepreneurial mindset to failure is one of the essentials of starting a business. Release early, fail fast, and learn from it as efficiently as possible. The spread of this kind of attitude will help mold Europe’s startup culture.”

Necessity forces resourcefulness, there are no guarantees in life, and nothing is forever except the certainty of change. But it would be the ultimate failure if Europe were to miss a potential moment of its own self-realization, where startups and entrepreneurs can make a crucial difference.



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