Avoiding Startup Bravado

I enjoyed a post from Brad Feld today about ’having a wake for failed startups’.

He encourages startup founders to celebrate failures as an inevitable part of the journey. More so, it’s a call for others in the community to lead the celebration, because people going through it are very likely swamped by negative emotions.

We experienced this recently at the Fishburners community in Sydney. A friend had thrown everything behind a startup over a 2 year period. Then an international player in the space made a move that instantly cut off their oxygen. It was gutting to see. He’s now back in real job, re-fueling before the next adventure.

The founder led something of a wake himself, sharing lessons for others in the community. It was a seriously admirable, stoic reaction. I’ve wondered at length how I’d respond in his position.

Brad’s post prompted me to consider the flipside of this approach. Something I think hinders the constructive recognition and acceptance of failure. Something I call Startup Bravado.

Startup Bravado, in my mind, is driven by a fear of showing weakness in any form. An outward display of over-zealous assurance, which in all likelihood masks the same struggles faced by any other startup founder. It’s possibly a defensive mechanism, but one that is self-defeating.

What is it exactly? Hard to define, but obvious when you see it:

  • Constant insistence of how much we’re killing it
  • Loud celebration of vanity metrics as a measure of success
  • Resistance to admitting any uncertainty or weakness, even in a ‘safe environment’.

All these actions come down to personal style (and Australian founders are often accused of leaning too far in the opposite direction). Often they can be excused as part of the media game, or a pitch to win investors. I can handle that, and have no doubt been guilty of both.  

But there’s a fine line between the visionary founder, marching onwards towards a future only they can see, and someone who’s succumbed to Startup Bravado. Even then, I find the third point above detrimental in almost any situation. And the one most likely to prevent a constructive celebration of failure.

Founders of (non-competing) startups should be the ultimate ‘safe audience’. They know the struggle. They represent a risk-free time to let down your guard, admit weakness and offer support. No matter how well things are going, there’s always room for improvement. These conversations are critical to either preventing failure (however minor), or recognising and accelerating it, by moving on to other things faster.

I certainly get more from those type of open conversations, and think the startup community would benefit if everyone dropped the Startup Bravado.

Unless of course you’re always killing it. Then I’d love some tips.