The Nuances of Failure

Fail early, fail fast, fail often.

That’s a mantra whose usage has seen a recent upsurge by technology startup circles during the last several years. You don’t have to look hard to find many pop-psychology articles and business articles and TED talks that tout the benefits of failure and making mistakes. The basic premise is that humans—good at learning from experience—can learn from past mistakes and use those lessons learned from failure to propel them toward success in future projects.

But “failure” is such a broad, generic term that the nuances of its meaning are often lost. As if failure is caused by a single problem, that, once overcome, will thrust everyone who learns the “Secret of Failure” onto a path of smooth-sailing, never-ending success.

But it’s just not that simple. Failure is complicated and hard. Sure, you learn from past failures, but there’s always so many different reasons for failure that you’re never stymied by the same source of failure again and again. Simply knowing what caused problems in the past doesn’t always mean that you know how to easily solve similar problems in new situations. Having experienced “failure” doesn’t automatically make you a candidate for success in the future.

The reasons for failure are subtle and failure is often not caused by a single factor.

The wrong problem

You can build the greatest, most usable, most functional app ever, but if it doesn’t solve a problem that people actually have, then it’s a flop. If the product fails to meet a real market need, then those in the market will look elsewhere for a solution—and the product is a failure. But where did the failure occur? The choice of the technology stack that the app was built with? The interface design? Was the original product vision flawed from the beginning, or just the way that solutions were identified and chosen to be dealt with?

The wrong solution

A product can fail for technical reasons. It consistently crashes. Or, by failing to anticipate how users will use it, an egregious bug is encountered in certain scenarios. But technical problems are sometimes the easiest to solve. Bugs can be fixed and scaling problems can be addressed. Twitter became a success even though it often had problems scaling in its early years and users frequently encountered problems. Myspace failed, but not for technical reasons.

A product that consistently misses shipping deadlines and doesn’t meet user expectations when it does ship is a failure. But that failure can be a product of many different factors:

  • Poisonous team dynamics prevent people from working together to ship the product on time
  • An arbitrary resource constraint doesn’t allow for the right people to be hired or the right tools to be used so that the problem can be solved in the best way
  • Hard shipping deadlines are arbitrary and uninformed from a technical perspective
  • Product marketing is creating unreasonable hype so that user expectations will never be met
  • Many many more

There are any number of reasons why a product or idea fails. But when failure is examined, its often the result of external pressures and it’s usually always due to “human” problems—rarely technical ones.

Anticipating

If failure isn’t the result of solving the wrong problem or delivering the wrong solution, there’s also many external factors that, by not anticipating and addressing properly, will contribute to the lack of success.

  • Competitors offering a better solution
  • Threats such as patent trolls, piracy, or security exploits
  • Trends in the market
  • Consumer climate
  • Overly-reliant on third-party systems that end up failing

The wrong time

An Internet-based service that solves the problems that cord-cutters currently face1 would’ve been a failure had it been introduced in the 90s. It’ll be a failure if it’s introduced ten years from now—when the problem has been solved by another product or either doesn’t exist anymore due to other factors. But, if such a product was introduced now, it’d be a slam dunk because it taps into a specific and growing market need and relies on other factors2 that are ideal at the moment.

Introducing the right product at the right time is key. The technology world is full of great-but-failed products that were either “ahead of their time” or “too late.”


Failure is only celebrated by those who have achieved success. According to popular business articles, failure is good. But failure for failure’s sake is never the intent and should never be the goal.

Do everything you can to succeed but learn from the times you don’t.

It’s in the hope that examining the nuances of failure—of anticipating where failure can come from and recognizing the contributing factors that are in your power to circumvent—that success can be achieved in future efforts.


  1. Cord-cutters have to deal with a lack of sports and other live events as well as “holes” between services like Netflix, Hulu, and premium content studios like HBO and Showtime

  2. Internet access is becoming ever more ubiquitous and hard bandwidth caps are not (yet) the norm.