Allan Bacon calls it the “f-word.”
Failure. And in business circles, it’s about the last thing anyone wants to admit to.
But Bacon, a strategic adviser for entrepreneurs and CEOs, is not so shy.
His first major failure: spending the first seven years of his post-college career getting a doctorate in quantum physics from Duke University, only to learn that, once he entered the marketplace, he was better suited for sales and marketing – a field he used to look down on.
“It was a gut-wrenching thing to realize,” Bacon says, “...thinking this was the plan and realizing, ‘Wow, I just don’t like this.’”
But, he adds, when you recognize a failure, a mistake, you can correct it and go on to succeed. And those skills helped him later, when he was working for a company left flailing when the dot-com bubble burst.
That’s the idea behind FailCon Charlotte, a one-day conference that’ll be at UNC Charlotte on Oct. 8, with Bacon as a keynote speaker.
The Silicon Valley-based program is the antithesis of the average business gathering, where people pretend their business is performing perfectly and speakers reference nearly impossible-to-replicate success stories, says Cass Phillipps, the San Francisco-based co-founder and organizer.
While FailCon doesn’t glamorize failure, it teaches people not to ignore the missteps, but to admit them, discuss them and learn from them, Phillipps said.
The first FailCon event launched in 2009 in Silicon Valley with more than 400 attendees.
Since then, Phillipps has helped coordinate FailCon events around the world, from Singapore to Australia, France to India. Upcoming events include FailCon Israel, FailCon Brazil and FailCon Berlin.
Charlotte first East Coast host
Charlotte is the first city in the U.S. outside of San Francisco to have the conference.
Phillipps says it’s structured similarly to Ted Talk’s Tedx program, a series of inspirational talks organized in communities worldwide. Regional FailCon events are organized locally.
“If we want to have a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem, this region needs to learn to truly embrace failure ... embrace it as a way of learning the path to success,” says Terry Cox, founder and CEO of the nonprofit entrepreneurial group Business Innovation Growth Council, who is organizing FailCon Charlotte.
Other speakers include Raleigh-based motivational speaker Dave Rendall who wrote “The Freak Factor: Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting Weakness,” and Chris Halligan, a serial entrepreneur and stalwart in Charlotte’s budding startup scene.
A year ago, Halligan and his co-founders Garth Moulton and Andrew Gertig closed the doors of their technology startup, OtherScreen, which was designed to engage viewers with interactive content on smartphones and tablets during live television events.
Cox has often mentioned frustration with Charlotte’s risk-averse business culture, because most successful entrepreneurs have quite a few major bumps on their path to success.
“You want an entrepreneur who failed and tried again,” she says.
Worth a second look
Defining failure is a sticky business, Phillipps says.
“I think people are so afraid of failure because their only definition is, ‘My business went bankrupt, my husband or wife divorced me, and I lost the house,’” she says.
But there are smaller failures, that if accepted and analyzed, could prevent a future flop.
Say, for example, a couple of popular employees quit, Phillipps says. Most people would say, “They didn’t get our culture.”
“But let’s make sure that’s what it is,” she says. Because if that’s the case, what did the company miss in the hiring process?
With introspection, they could change their strategy, Phillipps says.
From bottom to top
After deciding against a career in physics, Bacon got a job in sales and marketing at DigitalOptics, a company founded by a UNC Charlotte professor that made fiber-optics for telecommunications. His experience there followed a high-low-high trajectory.
The company had great potential, was working with a Hewlett-Packard subsidiary, and their products were in high demand, Bacon said.
Then the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, and they realized their suppliers had been overestimating – sometimes three-fold – the demand for their products.
DigitalOptics, which had 150 employees at the time, laid off at least 40 percent of its staff, Bacon said.
“It was about survival, trying to do everything we could to bring in business,” Bacon said. DigitalOptics began pursuing government contracts and partnerships with universities such as Bacon’s alma mater, Duke.
It was there that they developed technology for digital camera lenses on cellphones.
Five years later, they sold the company – more profitable that even before the crash – to Tessera Technologies.
The survival mode of those five years was difficult, Bacon said, but it also made them a better company. Bacon got more involved in the supply chain. He didn’t take estimates for demand at face value. He worked with customers to find out what was driving their demand and whether there was anything that would cause it to fall off.
Learn from it
Rendall, one of the FailCon Charlotte speakers, says embracing failure is an exercise in self-awareness and maintaining perspective. For example, many would see quitting – particularly a job or business – as a result of failure and sign of weakness, Rendall says.
“But we don’t have to be ashamed of quitting if we’re quitting things we recognize aren’t right for us,” he says.
Bacon is a prime example of that. And, fittingly, he likens failure to a science experiment.
In an experiment, you start with a hypothesis, Bacon says. “It’s an experiment to see if it’s right or not. If it fails, that’s good. ... The key is to learn something and move the ball forward.”
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