My willingness to fail gives me the ability to succeed. — Vinod Khosla
Chris, Dave and Lizzy of The Startup Factory
have each been an integral part of my startup and of many that call the Triangle home.
As you’ve probably heard, they’re shutting the fund down
after several good years. And so I wanted to take the time to write about all that they’ve accomplished and reflect upon the lessons we can continue to learn from the way they’ve run the fund and served as the cornerstone of our now vibrant community.
Back in 2012 when I was just beginning to learn about startups by reading Paul Graham’s essays, the first TSF Demo Day was perhaps my first in-person experience with startups (followed soon after by my first ExitEvent Startup Social). Chris has a natural knack for events and showmanship and by building a big tent and opening the doors to know-nothing newbies like me, he played a role in seeding the generation of startups that would eventually spawn Trinket.
Later, as a portfolio company, TSF’s weekly Friday lunches helped give me an inside view into the world of startups. We met with lots of founders, like Jud Bowman of Motricity, Appia and now Sift, and Jed Carlson of ReverbNation and now Adwerx. They even sprinkled in a few experts on things like presentations, startup law and marketing. Chris and Dave (Lizzy hadn’t yet joined) kept the focus on people throughout, and it was easy to build my nascent network, learn and just feel surrounded by others who had been there before.
It’s typical that Chris chose to call his book on startups Build the Fort
. It’s a playful, optimistic and insightful title, just like the man himself. A fort is exactly what TSF became for portfolio companies: a clubhouse where we all got to come work towards making the world a little bit better with our ideas and creativity.
Those of us who took the lesson to heart have built forts of our own filled with co-founders, advisors and users who believe in our vision. I can tell you from experience: there’s no better place to be than a fort you built and others came to hang out in. Chris, Dave and Lizzy built an awesome fort and shared it with so many of us over the past few years.
The Bigness of Small Wins
Perhaps the best thing TSF taught by example is always focusing on getting wins, no matter how small. Too often the focus in startup culture is on the mythical Big Win: the big raise, big deal, big hire or big product release that means you’ve won. I’m here to tell you that Big Wins are mostly the product of 20/20 hindsight or wishful thinking.
Even if they do exist, they’re not something that you can do — they’re something you work towards over months or years. Chaining small wins together every week is how big things get built, and that’s exactly what TSF showed us, through example.
TSF was a chain of small wins
from the start. When Chris was first getting started there was no startup scene to speak of. ExitEvent
was in its infancy. Durham startups weren’t really visible or a part of the city’s consciousness. It’s hard to imagine, knowing the city now.
But slowly, over pizza and beer, Chris proved to himself and his initial investors that there was something special about to happen here.
As Chris, and later Dave, kept checking off a series of firsts—first fund, first class, first exit, first portfolio company A round. They showed us how to chain wins together to build something special.
Leaving it All on the Field
In TSF’s final chapter, Chris, Dave and Lizzy really showed us what it means to be committed to an idea. They spent the last year and a half taking good shots on their goal. Between changing the format of the program, publishing a book, and traveling all over the state
and nation pitching LPs, they left it all on the field.
How many of us have left it all on the field for anything?
All startups face near-death experiences, and most don’t survive them. But often I see founders encountering life threatening adversity for their startup sitting back, discouraged, not moving forward. That’s a sure fire way to lose. Instead of taking the easy way out, the TSF team did everything they could think of and kept charging hard towards their goal. If there’s a right way to fail, this is it.
In engineering, there’s a concept of graceful failure, the opposite of catastrophic failure. Catastrophic failure doesn’t always mean headlines or disaster: from ‘Zombie funds' to startups 'going dark’, too often failure happens slowly, quietly, unnoticed, so that no one in your network can help pick you up.
Failing gracefully in the startup world means, after you’ve left it all on the field, you own up to your failures, bring in your team, take the time you need to reset and move forward. The TSF team has done all of this and so we all get to rally around them, learn from their story and help them move on.
There will be plenty of time for the post-mortem later, but questions always linger for anyone who experiences failure. Did we pick the right business model? Did we have a deep enough network in San Francisco and New York? Did we attract the best talent? Did we spend money on the right things?
I think Chris, Dave and Lizzy each will take the time to figure out what exactly they’ll take away as learnings. For now they’re leaving a healthy and growing portfolio and community behind them and can feel proud of what they accomplished in a short time. I hope we all bid them 'job well done' as they head on to new adventures.
Do Something Worth Failing At
The world is a better place because TSF did its thing. Investing in startups, like founding them, is an exhausting and uncertain business. But if you fail in either endeavor, the worth of your efforts is measured not by whether you succeeded but about how many big shots you took and how many wins you racked up along the way.
This is something I think we all can learn from TSF’s run: everything worth doing could fail. No one, no idea, is guaranteed success. The big question that we have to answer, and that TSF got right, is this: is what you’re doing worth failing at? If so, build your fort, leave it all on the field and if you fail, fail gracefully.
Thanks to TSF and everyone else who’s invested in this community, there will be plenty of us around to celebrate your wins, dust you off and help you get on to what’s next. And you can be sure we’ll be there to celebrate your successes when your hard work pays off.