‘Fail fast, fail often’ is the worst advice ever.

In a conversation about startups, there is always someone who will shout the maxim “fail fast, fail often!” When you actually look at this phrase, it sounds rather fatalistic. It is an empty reassurance that doesn’t actually help anyone.

The Lean Startup world, led by Eric Ries, believes you shouldn’t get stuck on assumptions and advocates doing lots of experiments quickly. Because that will help you learn. Everyone who has paid some attention in high school knows: research and experiments should be based on hypotheses — assumptions about the results that you are trying to prove.

A hypothesis about setting the right product price could be: “For product X, the target audience will be attracted by a price of 5 euros.” You then design an experiment to measure this. It could be a Facebook campaign with dummy ads that people can click on to buy product X for that amount, for example. When you carry out such an experiment, you will learn if your hypothesis was correct or not; people will have clicked on the ad a significant number of times, or not. If they didn’t, you were evidently wrong. But does that mean you failed? Definitely not!

The only thing that happened is that your hypothesis turned out to be incorrect. If that were failure, every scientist would be an ultimate loser. But scientists know that a hypothesis is only a way to frame an experiment. If I predict heads, and the coin comes up tails, have I failed? Of course not.


Does that mean it’s impossible to fail in a (corporate) Lean Startup? Of course not. It’s possible big time: if you take hypotheses as truths without thinking. “Oh, of course people will buy our seriously cool product for 25 euros.” That’s not an experiment, that’s arrogance. As old as history itself. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: Hubris.

You can only fail if you don’t experiment

On the other hand, if you simply forgot to look at the fuel gauge, are driving to that same friend and then end up on the side of the road, you failed miserably. There was no experiment, there was no hypothesis, you were just being really stupid. And you will definitely think less lightly about the situation. I certainly would.

In other words: nobody can be enthusiastic about failure. It costs time, money, it costs you your good mood and it is an inefficient way of learning. What the maxim is trying to say is ‘experiment fast & experiment often’ or ‘learn fast & learn often’. And sure, that really brings you further.

Lead of the Innovation Factory @ Rabobank Headquarters. Also Lecturer/coach @IDETUDelft

Lead of the Innovation Factory @ Rabobank Headquarters. Also Lecturer/coach @IDETUDelft