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Our stories always begin before we do and this is certainly true of Failure:Lab. Before launching our international event and curriculum company, we were working on a little known idea called Elemental. It was supposed to be a new media company focusing on innovative philanthropy and positive news (think Upworthy.com). Instead it was shelved after five years and countless hours. It never made a penny.
In the weeks leading up to our first event we were in full promotion mode, enjoying social media, email, and the press. However, I got a call late one night telling me that I would be on live television early the next morning to talk about the event and share a personal failure. I had never done anything like this before. I didn’t know where the studio was, didn’t have media talking points and I nearly walked out of the green room in a state of panic. I kept wondering if anyone would notice if I just left. I still have no idea what I said on television (I mostly blacked out), and I have never watched the interview.
We were told the golden rule of event organizing is to never choose too large of a venue. We were so jazzed up after our first event that we immediately moved to a venue five times larger than our first venue in a city four times bigger than Grand Rapids, MI. We very quickly realized we’d bitten off more than we could chew and the event nearly broke our team — and our bank account. Worst of all, there was no SOLD OUT sign on the theater marquee.
Not knowing exactly what the speakers are going to say may be exciting for attendees, but it’s mostly horrifying for organizers. We used to take a casual approach to speaker coaching and guidance. Unfortunately, we realized this opens the door for some speakers to go rogue. One storyteller tried to bring his father up to the stage during his story. Another nearly had to be physically removed after he went three times longer than allotted; one tried to take a bottle of champagne on stage; and another we couldn’t locate before he was set to speak because he had wandered out into the audience!
As any organizer knows, there are a lot of moving pieces to an event. We learned quickly that testing the microphones, speakers, cameras, computers and lighting just once — even twice — isn’t enough. We’ve had mic batteries die on stage; computer meltdowns moments before the curtain opens; sound systems fall apart mid-event; spotlights pointed nowhere near the speakers; and my personal favorite: accidentally activating a speaker’s lav mic while he was going to the bathroom. The moment we realized where he was, I nearly fainted.
As our format started spreading internationally, I had to fly down to Mexico City to meet with and pitch some professionals who we wanted involved in our event. After a full day of travel from Michigan to Mexico, I jumped out of a cab and straight into my first meeting with the owner of a large development company. I was pitching him for sponsorship and played one of our videos on a huge flatscreen TV. After the video — and I swear I have no idea how this happened — YouTube auto-populated the frame with porn suggestions, as if that’s what I’d been watching before. The horror on my face was probably what they’ll remember most. No matter how many times I cleared my cache, this happened every single time I presented in Mexico.
All of our events partner with great companies and organizations who help us through sponsorship. We’re so grateful to all the fantastic people who have invested in us over the years; we couldn’t have grown without them. Early on, however, we weren’t always thoughtful about who we partnered with. Preceding one event, we were desperate for a lead sponsor and on the verge of losing a lot of money. At the last moment, a friend of a friend introduced us via email to a “holding company” that sent us a large check. We found out later that the company may have had ties to the mafia, and that’s all we’ll ever say about that for fear of the bagman.
Unifying your brand is as critical as it is difficult, especially when you empower others to run with your format. Our first independent Failure:Lab happened in Chandigarh, India. It sold out and the pictures were incredible. However, we failed to get them proper branding guidelines. They took wild liberties with our logo and mashed it with very strange fonts and pictures. It hurt our hearts to see our baby beaten so badly. Another time, someone was tagging photos of naked men with our hashtag — talk about #FailureLab.
What you rarely hear about when a company’s taking off is the dark struggles they had to go through before the success. Starting is so much easier than growing. A lot of companies get so caught up in working and executing that they completely forget about where they’re going. We launched the first event as an experiment, before we found out it would turn into a global movement. We waited entirely too long to take a step back and focus our vision. It would’ve saved us a lot of infighting and frustration if we had hired a consultant sooner to validate our ideas and direction.
We’ve found that teamwork is the hardest work, and it’s taken us years to learn how to productively work together. We’ve had to awkwardly ask team members to leave, legally buyout others and we even lost a PR firm because of equity disagreements. We have yelled, we have fought and we’ve hurt feelings, but we stuck together to find our strengths and learned to accept our weaknesses.
It can get pretty confusing trying to navigate / secure national trademark and copyright laws. Last year, before we launched our corporate curriculum that transforms company culture, we were beta testing unsecured intellectual property. I emailed the entire curriculum off to our co-author and lead facilitator Denise for some feedback. Moments after hitting send I realized it was the wrong Denise, and somehow this Denise was also a corporate trainer. Thinking I had just ruined the company and given away all our new IP to a competitor, I didn’t sleep for a week. Thankfully she kindly deleted the email, but you better believe I’m much more careful with sensitive communications now.
While our main mission is to eliminate the fear of failure, there’s some powerful irony in how scared we’ve been at times. When you’re pushing a startup and find yourself in unknown, uncertain territory it can be very easy to react in fright. There are countless big decisions, moving logistics, unanswered questions, sleepless nights, tense conversations, and financial challenges — all of which can lead to paralyzing fear if you let them. We are absolutely guilty of giving in to the very thing we’re pushing back against sometimes, but now when we’re afraid, we keep calm and fail forward.
While we’ve most certainly had a lot of failures as a young company, we’ve always kept the right perspective. Even when things were darkest, we banded together and picked ourselves up. Failure is universal to us all, and simultaneously unique to each one of us. The most important thing is to surround yourself with good people and keep on trying. Your idea may not work, but what you learn from it may perfectly fuel the next one.
A fire alarm may go off in the middle of your event, your cameraman may take a nose dive off his bike while filming, your partner may show up to a media interview high on two Redbulls, your microphone may capture you in the bathroom. Fear not, the show must go on.