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Fail culture and dealing with mistakes

Fail fast. Learn faster.

Person wearing a jeans jacket and holding a bottle in the hand
Portrait of a woman with long brown hair. Wearing jeans and black sweater.

Fail more beautifully.

Shit happens. We all know that, but nobody likes to talk about it. Those who deal with mistakes and failure openly and constructively have a clear advantage though. This is why we need a better culture when it comes to dealing with failure and mistakes.

The end came in an inconspicuous letter from the Berlin Food Safety Authority, which Laura Zumbaum opened in February 2017. “Dear Ms Zumbaum, you are putting a non-marketable product into circulation,” it said. “Due to the fact that the coffee cherry was not consumed in any significant quantity within the EU before 1997, it may no longer be classed as a food product until you have an official licence.”
“At first, I thought it was all just a mix-up,” says the 31-year-old.

She had invested two years in developing and building the selo brand and the selo green coffee product: a caffeinated soft drink based on the coffee cherry, the fruit pulp that surrounds a coffee bean. Then came the Novel Food Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 – and Zumbaum’s company was on the brink of collapse. 

What happened next? Zumbaum received a letter from the State Office of Criminal Investigation, and criminal proceedings were opened. Add to that all the bills. Zumbaum had just produced 50,000 bottles and bought the coffee cherries. “Of course, I thought: OK, I’ll drop everything. I’m going to stop production. File for bankruptcy.” The project had failed. 

 

Failure sucks.

Seven out of ten start-ups fail, experts say. So, it’s perfectly normal – but it still sucks. It doesn’t matter whether you run an entire company into a wall or just flop the launch of a new product. 

There are trillions of reasons for failure, some are of your own doing and others are out of your hands: 

  • misjudging the market size,
  • overlooking risks,
  • being too slow compared to the competition,
  • disagreements within the management team,
  • having a legal situation change,
  • and many more...

So, hey presto – there’s already a big, fat ‘fail’ waiting for you at the end of the business plan.

What we need is a ‘fail culture’, as it is often referred to in the digital start-up sector. In other words, a better way of dealing with mistakes and failure. The start-up scene is showing how this can be achieved by having company founders attending so-called ‘Fuck-up Nights’ to discuss their companies that have failed particularly badly – allowing others to learn from their mistakes. 

Confucius says: make mistakes – but only once.

This is exactly what this new fail culture is all about. It’s actually an old philosophy: “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another,” says Confucius. “To err is human, but to persevere in error is only the act of a fool,” says Cicero. 

And another piece of wisdom: every end is the beginning of something new. As in the case of Laura Zumbaum: “After I slept on it for two nights, I decided that I wouldn’t give up that easily.”

“Communication was our salvation,” Zumbaum says today. On the one hand, she succeeded in maintaining the trust of her customers: “When a food product is not approved, everyone thinks the same thing: ‘Oh God, she has been selling something dangerous!’” On the other hand, Zumbaum used a communication campaign about the end of coffee cherry lemonade to publicise her new product: a soft drink made from unroasted coffee beans. 

This approach was particularly successful because it is so rarely seen. “The corporate culture in Germany does not exactly invite people to talk about failure,” says Laura Zumbaum, founder of selo. “I can see that in the reactions that I’m still getting today. When I tell them what happened, many people say: ‘I can’t believe you’ve carried on!’”

The reasons for this unwillingness to deal with failure proactively may be cultural as well as social. Sociology professor Heinz Bude blames ‘German Angst’ and the ‘Generation of No Mistakes’. The over-40s in particular have wanted to do everything right, to strike the perfect work-life balance – there’s no room for anything going wrong.

That’s why we pay special attention when someone tells us what didn’t work out. At the Altbierbrauerei Im Füchschen brewery in Düsseldorf, for example, they tried to add a wheat beer to their portfolio. But their master brewer explains that this didn’t work out. So, they changed their plans – and banked on a Pils-style lager, and it was quite a success. 

A beer released ahead of its time

At the Trumer Brewery near Salzburg, they experienced failure with their ‘Diamond’ beer in 2007. “This exclusive speciality beer – today it would be called a craft beer – was ahead of its time,” admits brewery boss Seppi Sigl. At the time, high-priced speciality beers in champagne bottles didn’t have a place on the market. So, the ‘Diamond’ remained their only brew of the kind. “Today, it would probably look a little different. Nevertheless, it was an important experience for us – and nobody can take away their reputation in Austria of being the ‘first mover’ in this respect. 

Modern ways of managing failure and mistakes are only possible when it is accepted that mistakes happen. Life happens. There shouldn’t be any negative consequences, otherwise you get into a spiral of fear and silence, with mistakes quickly being swept under the carpet. “Hopefully the boss doesn’t notice” is just as wrong as “Quickly, get rid of it and hope the customer doesn’t notice”.

Fail culture: learning from pilots

The aviation industry demonstrates how to manage mistakes and failure well. Crew Resource Management (CRM), which is common practice here, includes a code of conduct according to which pilots inform each other objectively and without reproach about errors or mistakes; and accept messages about errors or mistakes without shame or apology. After all, it would be pretty stupid if the plane’s captain were to go into lots of “oh, actually, I wanted to... uh... what I meant to do was...” while the aircraft is losing altitude. Better to say: “Thank you. Corrected the error.” And then steer the course!

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Laura Zumbaum:
Driven by the vision of making the coffee trade fairer and more sustainable, the Berlin native failed with her first product – only for her second one to go on to be represented nationally in the retail trade.