Finding positivity in failure: Silicon Valley leaders talk about past setbacks

From left to right: Akash Garg, Christine Yen, Amit Kumar.

Last month, an Uber executive, the cofounder of a successful software company and a venture capitalist investor joined the Newton Lecture Series to speak to UC Berkeley students. But rather than talking about the successes that led them to their prestigious positions, they chose to discuss something much more taboo: failure.

Each panelist opened up about the companies and projects they abandoned on the way to their current careers –– and how those failures were essential to their later success.

“I think we’re very lucky to work in an industry where people see you spent a year trying something and it didn’t work out and they ask, ‘What’d you learn from that?’” said Christine Yen, cofounder of software company Honeycomb.io.

Before Yen started Honeycomb.io, she worked for a number of now-defunct startups, including Venuetastic, a booking company.

Yen and her partner had seen that venues rarely posted their prices in listings and assumed that there must be no place for them to do so. They learned later that it wasn’t that there was no place for venues to put their prices –– it was that they didn’t want to post them or often changed their prices based on the type of client they were working with.

After a year of working on the project, including a stint working with popular startup accelerator Y Combinator, Yen ultimately decided to end the project, believing that it wouldn’t go anywhere. But she came away from the project with some important insights: she decided that in the future she would focus on working on projects that revolved around topics she knew and deeply cared about.

“It was a year of my life.” Yen said. “Was it a failure? Yes. But it was also a success because I learned.”

Similarly, Uber’s head of driver engineering Akash Garg didn’t take an easy path to becoming a Silicon Valley leader. For eight years after graduating college, he worked for many startups that never met success, including one social media project that competed with Facebook.

“We were failing pretty miserable compared to where we thought we would go,” Garg said.

But he ultimately landed a job as a senior engineer at Twitter, his first job for a major company. There, he was able to bring a new perspective to the company because of his past experience with startups, he said.

He didn’t have predisposed concepts of what you could or couldn’t do in a large company and he was able to use the innovative work styles he had learned over the years at Twitter, and later at Uber.

“We’re used to this Instagram lifestyle of seeing what’s going well,” said Amit Kumar, an investor at venture capitalist firm Accel. “But behind that there’s a much deeper journey.”

Kumar, a UC Berkeley alumnus, also worked with a number of failed startups before making his way to his current position, in which he focuses on investment in startups related to social media, gaming, esports, virtual reality and cryptocurrency.

But he says he doesn’t define his past and present in terms of failure and success. Rather, he thinks that his experiences with startups have helped him to grow to a place we’re he’s better at identifying what he’s good at and where he needs to improve.

Overall, the panelists stressed one major point: that failure is nothing to be ashamed of and that, in many cases, it’s necessary.

“Try something you could fail at,” Garg advised students toward the end of the class. “You could be bad at it, but one of the most rewarding things you could do is dive deep into something.”

The Newton Lecture Series is hosted by the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, which invites business founders and Silicon Valley leaders to speak to UC Berkeley students.

 


Also published on Medium.

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