[Update: We fixed some quotes; we regret the errors]. Gina Bianchini, the founder of startups Mighty Bell and Ning, went off script today to talk about failure. At the Failcon conference in San Francisco, she talked about how to learn from your bad breaks.
She has come face to face with failure. Bianchini’s last big startup, Ning, sold for $150 million in 2011 and had more than 100 million registered users. But it was considered a failure because it had once had a $750 million valuation and had raised more than $100 million. And it lost out to Facebook, which became worth billions of dollars.
One lesson is to roll with failure and not become a victim. She learned this in the third grade, when her mother took her to a tournament race (she was a competitive walker) and they arrived too late for her to compete.
“It was totally crushing,” Bianchini said. “I could have been a victim at that moment, feeling sorry for myself. That was not my M.O. My dad was killed when I was 11. Not winning the vice president race in my high school. It’s not about what happens to you. It’s what do you do next. How do you bounce back from failure? Try to stay focused on the things I can control and look at life as a series of small moments that I have some control over.”
You can trace failures back to small moments, she said.
She added later, “What did I learn this week? Did I do everything within my control to drive this? It’s so much more relaxing and so much more fun. It’s not like a big scary world crashing down on me. I feel I am in control of my own destiny, and failure and mistakes and fucking up is part of that process. It is a process. It’s so much more fun to succeed. The joy is in learning every single week.”
Bianchini said she writes down lessons that she learned in a week every Sunday and her goals for the coming week.
“[Carrying] failures on our back as we go into the new week is like climbing Mount Everest not with just your supplies but with 50 pounds of rocks on your back,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”
Asked what she learned at Ning, she said she learned a “ton of lessons.” But it was hard to pinpoint any one singular lesson of “five or six years of my life.”
Another speaker at Failcon, author Scott Berkun, said that one of the fallacies about failing is that there is a single point of failure.
“We believe simple lies over complex truths,” he said.
She did not say that Ning itself raised too much money. But she did say that people consider the ability to raise a lot of money to be like a status symbol in Silicon Valley.
“That was fucked up,” she said.
Raising a lot of money when you have growth is good. But having revenue to go with that growth is important, even though venture capitalists tend to value growth above all else, she said.
She also said she was humbled that many of her own “genius ideas” didn’t work. Sometimes the ideas that worked came accidentally or from someone else. She said it’s hard but you have to embrace those ideas, no matter where they come from.
Bianchini said that working in small groups and having lots of one-on-one conversations is the way she likes to work. In that environment, it’s a lot easier to make products and “be real” with people on your team. That is something within your control.
Bianchini said, “The power of intimate communities to change people’s lives is the most important lesson I’ve learned in the past decade.”
Teams have to be willing to iterate back and forth based on constructive feedback. They don’t do as well if, after they launch a beta version of software or a web site, if they get nothing but congratulatory feedback.
“We live in such an interconnected world, nobody wants to come out and say, ‘I don’t get what you are doing,’” she said. “….You see congratulations threads. Once you get through that cycle, you can understand what was real about what you built and what was not about what you built…. People love what you are doing….It’s crickets when the actual numbers come in.”
If you spend a lot of money on a big bang launch and it fails, then “you look like an asshole,” Bianchini said.
“I look myself in the mirror and ask, ‘Am I prepared to publicly fail? The answer is yes….I don’t believe you can build anything new if you are not willing to look in the mirror and put yourself out there.”
And the haters will come out. Bianchini was a big target in part because she got a cover story in Fast Company magazine — and she was a high-profile, attractive woman.
“I’ve seen people get a lot more shit than I got for that,” she said. “There were like two haters…. Don’t listen to them. The message in Silicon Valley was to keep your head down and keep delivering.”