Hey East Coast Entrepreneurs: We Fail Better.

Hey East Coast Entrepreneurs: We Fail Better.


Apparently, the secret to Silicon Valley’s success isn’t just the good weather and smart people – turns out, the secret to our region’s entrepreneurial preeminence just may be the way we embrace failure.

According to KPCB life-science (devices) partner Dana Mead – who notes he hails from the northeast — there’s a world of difference between Palo Alto and Cambridge (MA).

In Cambridge, he contends in a recent (and, as always, informative) lecture/podcast at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, if you tell people your last three businesses failed, “they’ll look at you sideways” and shake their heads, presumably with a mixture of sadness and pity.  In Palo Alto, by contrast, the reaction will be “that’s awesome!  I’m sure your next company will be a world-beater.”

OK – three points:

(1)   Cue obvious throw away comments about what a truly “awesome” time it must now be life-science VC (Bruce Booth’s anticipated objections are noted for the record).

(2)   Agree failure is important – after all, wasn’t it Mark Zuckerberg who originally said “success is going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm?” – oh, wait, that was Churchill.  Perhaps the basic concept here didn’t originate in the Valley — although I suppose it’s possible we’ve done the best job of appropriating it.

(3)   Is there a chance Mead’s actually right here?  This deserves some comment:

On the one hand, I think there’s a mystique in the Bay Area that goes way beyond anything reasonable, and leads to all sorts of outlandish errors of attribution.

At the same time, I’ve certainly seen in large companies how fear of failure absolutely inhibits innovation – and in academia, how fear of failure has led many promising academic physicians to pursue safe but uninspired research questions, rather than questions that were riskier but more important.   As I’ve discussed elsewhere (actually, my favorite piece), it’s likely (and, to me, rather sad and disappointing) that  many of the most successful companies and most successful people (including academics) got there through careful, deliberate, incremental advances rather than via breakthrough innovation.

Certainly, it makes sense that entrepreneurs would benefit from a culture that accepts failure as part of growth.  My question is whether Cambridge is as different from Palo Alto as Mead suggests?

As a relatively recent West Coast arrival who spent more than 20 years in Cambridge and vicinity, and who remains an ardent Red Sox fan – I suspect Mead’s impression is off, and beyond that, I certainly hope it’s not what the Sand Hill crowd is counting on to beat back the east coast competition.

As a Boston resident in the fall of 2004, I had the chance to bear joyful, immersive, witness to what can happen when a perennial favorite counts on historical trends and a sense of manifest density.  The results speak for themselves.

(Now if we can just find a manager….)

David Shaywitz is co-founder of the Harvard PASTEUR program, a research initiative at Harvard Medical School. His a strategist at a biopharmaceutical company in South San Francisco. You can follow him at his personal website. This post originally appeared on Forbes.

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