FailCon interview: Avoiding and learning from mistakes, successfully

Now in its third year, FailCon's success is riding on the idea that failure can be instructional in the learning process for tech start-ups. In this interview, the event's founders speak with ZDNet about lessons learned and what to expect at next month's show.

The old saying goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Fortunately, FailCon got it right on its first try. The one-day Silicon Valley conference is now in its third year and expanding globally. The event attracts 500 people and is designed for entrepreneurs and anyone else comfortable with looking at failure straight in the eye and harnessing lessons learned for eventual success.

ZDNet recently spoke with founders and producers Cass Philips and Diane Loviglio about running an event based on a contrarian idea and what to expect at FailCon 2011, being held on October 24th in San Francisco at the Kabuki Hotel. Speakers include; Katherine Barr, Partner, Mohr Davidow Ventures; Chris DeWolfe, CEO, MindJolt; Liz Gannes, Senior Editor, AllThingsD; Vinod Khosla, Founder, Khosla Ventures; Travis Kalanick, Co-Founder, Uber; and many more.

ZDNet: What is new for FailCon 2011?

Cass: The theme for the event is to help early-stage founders have a smoother start and more quickly recover from smaller failures, rather than have a massive failure somewhere down the line. When we're looking for speakers, we look for people who are comfortable sharing stories that can also give actionable advice. New this year are organized lunch discussions.  Attendees can choose to join into certain discussion tables during lunch to facilitate stronger relationships being built at the event.

Diane: Like last year, we'll be having workshops as a second track throughout the day. Each workshop will have 30 - 60 people in a room and focus on a specific topic. These intimate sessions will allow for questions and answers followed by an activity with everyone pulling out paper and pencil. They'll cover core topics like negotiating, recruiting, funding and other major milestones that a company would go through. We'll also have more stuff for designers about products, mobility and user experience.

ZDNet: What are the top three reasons to attend FailCon?

Cass: First, and especially important to those who are new in the industry, you will see and get a chance to meet the people who are today's movers and shakers. We also get investors, press, PR reps, and decision makers at the show so the networking opportunity is incredible. Secondly, it is one of the best conferences to walk away with a to-do list for your start-up that is immediately applicable. It is great to hear inspirational speakers, but this show will actually help you with practical matter, like how you do your branding and implement it across your website in a clear manner and then extend it for mobile devices.  Or how you make your first hire and build a team. That's where a lot of conferences are lacking.

Diane: The third one is that this conference allows you to switch off from "sales pitch mode" and talk about failures. It is not for you to pimp up your start-up but rather to learn from others, help solve problems, and find that support network. People are encouraged to talk about things that are not going well. Speakers often stay for the duration of the show to speak with attendees, whereas at other shows, they usually take off. Last year, Esther Dyson stayed from 8AM until 6PM taking in the whole conference and not just showing up for her slot.

Cass: How you start your dialogue with other attendees is completely different at FailCon. At most conferences you enter a dialogue saying, "What are you working on/here is what I'm working on." In this conference you start with, "Here is what I've done wrong, can you help me?" That in itself completely restructures the conversations you have at the show.

ZDNet:  With a couple FailCon events under your belt and your first international installment just around the corner this month, what lessons have you learned?

Cass: Both of us have failed startups in our past so we empathize with founders of startups who are struggling. It was the conferences that weren't doing as well that led me to create FailCon. I was listening to speakers on stage and getting bored at what they had to say since the content was not relevant to someone interested in early stage issues, like myself.

Diane: Being females in Silicon Valley, we wanted to make sure that we were getting good representation since there are not as many female founders. And we've managed to reach a balance successfully every year without depicting females as any more failure-prone than their male entrepreneur counterparts. We now see females increasingly being able to own it and speak openly about failures.

ZDNet:  Last year, Digg founder Jay Adelson was speaking at FailCon when the news broke that the company was laying off 37% of its staff. This year, you have Airbnb's Joe Gebbia lined up who'll likely be asked about the crisis that the rental-by-owner site faced recently. How will he handle it?

Cass: My understanding is that Joe will not bring it up during his talk and I think that by October, Airbnb will have solved the problem and moved on, which I honestly think isn't a terrible plan. But I have warned them that it could come up during Q&A.

Diane: We secure speakers well in advance of the show, but once the day comes they could be talking about three other topics that have come up since, which I think is awesome. Things are changing all the time and certain subjects will be more relevant to the speakers, so they could bring up anything really, and if surprises arise I'm sure they could handle it well, just as Jay did last year.

ZDNet: Who comes to FailCon?

Cass: People who are choosing to attend an event called FailCon are self-selecting themselves to be the kind of people comfortable talking about failures. They are coming ready to be a little more open.

Diane: In addition to founders, we also get people from a lot of big companies like Cisco, Wal-Mart, and Yahoo. Our hunch is that those people want to leave their companies to do start-ups, or maybe they want to bring back insights to create smaller teams within their teams. We also get quite a few students from business schools like Haas and Stanford.

ZDNet: What is next on your international agenda?

Cass: We are hosting our first international event in Paris on September 22, 2011, and we are looking to do one in Chile in January. We're also talking with a few other countries, and are working to launch an event in Cape Town, South Africa in early 2012. It's going to be an even more exciting show overseas because failure is so taboo in so many places. In San Francisco, founders are more comfortable talking about it, whereas in other parts of the world, talking publicly about failure could make it difficult to raise capital or get a job. I'm excited to get a chance to help change cultures.

Learn more:

FailCon 2011 | FailCon Paris

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