Why A Prominent Startup Executive Wants You To Fail, Get Fired And Focus

Article first published as Why A Prominent Start-up Executive Wants You to Get Fired and Fail on Technorati.

FailureKim Kovacs, Founder and CEO OptionEase, recently spoke to a class of emerging entrepreneurs at UC Santa Barbara. With over 700 customers, OptionEase has become the leading enterprise class SaaS solution for stock option and equity compensation tracking and compliance. Kim shocked some of the students by telling them that she hopes they fail.

In this 8-minute video excerpt from her talk, Kim describes why, “failure is my favorite word at my company now.” Kim also discusses the importance of focus and why she does not hesitate to hire people who have previously been fired.

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Kim Kovac's Quote

You can watch Kim’s talk below or on YouTube here: http://youtu.be/jlM6E_zlGD4


Kim KovacThe video begins with Kim describing her experience speaking at an Inc. 5000 conference. One of the primary messages she conveyed to the Inc. attendees was the importance of focus, especially during a startup’s early days.

“There are a lot of things that entrepreneurs need to do. Yes, you need to be dedicated. Yes, you need to have that entrepreneurial spirit and you’ve got to stay up late…but people lose sight of the fact that they (have to) stay hyper-focused. You have to stay on focus because, as an entrepreneur, you are going to get ideas coming at you every second. We encourage it…but it doesn’t mean you have to act upon (each idea). You never want to close your ears off, but you also want to be sure to remain on focus.”

Failure Is A Winning Strategy

optionleaseEntrepreneurial failure is a myth. Entrepreneurs know that what others call “failure” is simply a bump in the road toward their ultimate success. As life-long learners, entrepreneurs view every experience as a valuable opportunity to hone their skills, establish new relationships and become more street-smart. For this reason, Kim encourages her employees to embrace failure.  

“People are so concerned about being successful all the time that sometimes they take shortcuts to be successful. I had a salesperson who would basically do anything with the client to get the deal. It was killing our company…she always had to sell something that didn’t exist. She couldn’t sell what we had.

(I told her) you’ve got to fail. You are going to lose deals. You’re going to fail and you’re going to learn how to overcome those failures with the next deal and sell what we have, not what we’re going to have in six-months. I am telling everybody (at my company) ‘It’s OK to fail.’

If you can recognize the failure before it becomes epic, that’s a really good thing. You’re going to learn way more every time you fail at something than when you are succeeding.”

“If (Roger Bannister) had run a four-minute mile the first time out of the gate, would he have run for nine-years? Probably not. He might not have recognized that it was the wind behind his back, that it was the training he was on, the shoes he was in, he may not have had an opportunity to test all those failure points.

If you ask someone who just got lucky how they (succeeded), they’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ They don’t know because they never had a chance to fail.”

Healthy startup cultures do not penalize employees for making mistakes because they know that the only employees who never make mistakes are those who never do anything.  Unlike Big Dumb Companies, successful startups must focus on achieving results and cannot afford to expend energy affixing blame. Such environments encourage employees to internalize and take ownership of their missteps, which helps them avoid repeating them.

Getting Fired

Kim told the UC Santa Barbara student entrepreneurs that they should never fear being fired from their jobs. According to Kim, “You’re not pushing the limits (if you are not afraid of getting fired). People in larger companies are reluctant to have you in their face about stuff.”

Kim went on to note that employees with stock options should aggressively question their bosses because they are essentially investors in their startups. As Kim puts it, “I really went right up to the edge and had I been in bigger companies, I would have been canned, for sure. People would say, ‘Why is she asking these questions?’ and I would always come back and say, ‘Because I am an investor in this company.’”

For employees who are fired, Kim counsels them to not despair. Rather, she encourages them to, “…think about why (they were fired). Was it the right place? Were they not receptive to you or was it just time? Sometime I have (hired) the best employees who were canned somewhere else and the reason they were canned is because they were way out-thinking the prior company. Push the envelope. At some point you’ve got to … be willing to take the risk.”

As Kim’s talk makes clear, startups should embrace failure, focus and previously fired employees. In an intellectually honest environment, more insights are gained by dissecting why a decision was wrong, than by ignoring mistakes, blaming others and taking shortcuts to achieve short-term success.

Image courtesy of Atom Smasher

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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