Opening the file drawer

Edison once said something to the effect of not failing at making a light bulb, but simply finding a bunch of ways of making a light bulb that didn’t work.  What he didn’t point out is that the reason he got to the light bulb and others didn’t is that they didn’t have access to those mistakes.  Which is great in a world where you want to own light bulb making, but not so great if you actually want to advance civilization (note: if you get a chance, read about Edison and his insane capitalist tendencies).

In academia, we call this the “file drawer problem”.  The basic idea is that studies that show a novel effect get published, and studies that don’t get stuck in a file drawer and nobody knows they exist.  And the reason it is a problem is that those failures may be novel in and of themselves; knowing that somebody else tried something and it didn’t work prevents you from wasting a bunch of resources trying the same thing.

Like Edison, people theoretically have the right to hoard their failures as private data.  But I think more often, people do it out of shame.  We see it in business all the time: failed startups, product flops, rebranding gone woefully, woefully awry and people trying to backpedal and spin and hope that nobody notices. It’s not that the people behind these concepts are intentionally making mistakes; mistakes are a natural part of life.  And by failing to document and share them, we slow down our progress by a significant amount.

If every founder of every failed startup penned a candid, introspective blog post a few months after they shut the doors that detailed what went wrong, we’d be opening the file drawer into a world of knowledge that benefits the community at large.  And even if that moves the needle from “nine out of every 10 startups fail” to “eight out of every 10 startups fail,” that’d be a massive win.

But what about the significant inhibiting pressure of the fact that you have to out yourself as a failure?  First, everyone already knows.  The spin rarely works, especially when your startup shutters, so it isn’t like you’re hiding the embarrassing bit.  Second, you’re helping your community (and what’s the point of being in a community if you don’t contribute to it?).  Third, and most importantly, talking about failures shows maturity.  And as any investor will tell you, investing in mature founders is a heck of a lot better than investing in failures who don’t want to share why they failed in an honest way.

Could your post mortem get a little viral? Sure. There are a few currently making the rounds. But that’s not a bad thing: the whole point here is that other people can learn from your mistakes.  Because when we view startups as fundamental to the progress of civilization, you can learn from the mistakes of scientists.  You can fix the file drawer problem that we are still figuring out, and you can do it with a grace that we will likely never achieve, for reasons of academic ego.  And for once, wouldn’t be better to be smarter than the scientists?