Embracing failure, the new path to European startup success?

Today Promoting Enterprise welcomes back Karen Boers, co-founder & CEO of Startups.be and European Startup Network, for her insights into the taboo of failure in the European startup world and why failure and the lessons learnt from it could actually be the key to future success.

5 years ago Failing Forward was launched as a keynote conference, with big role models testifying about the hardships they had overcome along the way and why the lessons they learned were critical to their success. Because let’s face it, failure is nothing more than a stepping stone in a learning process – and yet we seem to be very ashamed to talk about it. Thankfully, the campaign has been growing across Europe with events, media campaigns and social media stories – breaking through the stigma associated with failure.

Why do you think people are so afraid of failure in the startup world?

European startups have long felt the sting of failed ventures, yet forums to discuss what went wrong are scarce. When we started to invite speakers for a conference on this topic, we really experienced how deeply people – especially entrepreneurs – fear discussing the subject in public.

Yet failure is not something to feel ashamed of. In many areas of life, it is common sense that practice makes perfect, and practice requires – guess what – trial and error, or failure. In the US, investors applaud entrepreneurs with previous experience, good and bad, as long as there are clear take-aways from that experience. In Europe, it’s all or nothing: either you make it the first time around or you might be banned from entrepreneurial life forever.

Why is failure important and what can we learn from it?

The point is not that we should try to avoid failure – that goes against the heart of innovation. The point is that we should embrace the lessons learned from failure. When a kid falls off the bike, you don’t tell them to go figure it out themselves either. You tell them what they’re doing wrong, help them learn and persevere – and become an expert before you know it.

So whenever we take a wrong turn or fall face first on the ground, let’s not be shy about it, help each other stand up again and prevent others from making the same mistakes.

How have you been tackling the ‘failing’ stigma in Belgium and Europe since starting this initiative?

Starting out with the keynote conference, we started gathering more partners around the topic. First we were able to join forces with 15 partners in a two year European project, tackling the subject across the different communities. We did this through local events, panels in big startup events as well as some research into the obstacles leading to failure and countermeasures allowing us to share and recommend best practices.

At present, a four year Flemish project is allowing us to take the campaign to a new level by including local events, a big media campaign every six months and an online platform where people can share their own stories.

What progress have you seen since the last failing forward conference?

It’s been great to see the progress in how easily people talk about the subject. Previously we had a very tough time lining up 10 hot shot speakers for the first editions, now people are knocking on our door, eager to share their stories. Not all people dare to speak about the topic that openly, but the culture is shifting slowly but steadily.

Mainstream press have also picked up on the topic, providing many more two-sided tales of the failed entrepreneur rather than stories focusing exclusively on their failures.

Read more about Karen Boers here on Promoting Enterprise:

From Startup Manifesto to a truly unified European startup ecosystem

Steering the heavy education tanker away from a head-on collision with the future

Failing is not contagious, but success is

Want to find out more about Failing Forward? Visit the website and be sure to look up Startups.be and the European Startup Network!

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