For months, failure stared Leticia Gasca in the face. And still she kept it hidden, maybe even convincing herself that it wasn’t real. Her business just needed a little more time.
After all, what could go wrong with a plan that aimed to empower indigenous women by helping them commercialize their handicrafts?
"I was in college and super naive and I thought it would be easy to create a social business to empower these women and improve their quality of life," Gasca tells MNN.
"I made my business plan, looked for business partners and got the business incorporated. We found investors, started working with the women, producing and commercializing [their work]. I did everything by the book like they taught you in business school years ago."
But failure stalked Gasca’s every turn. It glared back at her from a computer screen, where a spreadsheet showed that she and her partners couldn’t even afford to pay themselves.
It loomed even larger when her partners abandoned the business to find jobs that actually promised them a salary.
Phase 1: Denial of failure
The business was broken. And yet, Gasca marched on.
"I ended up doing everything on my own and I was in denial for about six months," she says.
But failure never flinched — until Gasca finally came clean.
"I decided to be honest with myself," she recalls. The hardest part was telling the indigenous women, who were all partners in the venture, that "the business died and it was my fault."
The experience was so traumatizing, Gasca wouldn’t breathe a word about it for the next seven years.
"I became a professional in hiding this failure experience in my CV," she adds.
Phase 2: Share doomed business dreams
As is often the case, Gasca’s coming out moment involved a few drinks. She was enjoying a night out with friends, chatting about their entrepreneurial misadventures — "and how we all had these screwed-up businesses and never shared these stories despite being close friends."
Gasca opened up about her doomed business.
"We shared our stories for three hours and realized we just had the most meaningful business conversations ever," she recalls.
In fact, stories of doomed business dreams became so infectious, the friends decided to make their sessions a template of sorts for others to follow. They even created a few rules because it turned out everyone suddenly loved talking about their own failings.
"We said, 'OK guys, we need to give this structure so nobody talks for an hour. We created a model of three or four speakers per session and each of them have seven minutes and images to show their failures," Gasca explains. "When everything was planned, I said it needed a name even if it was just one session, and one friend said, 'Fuckup Night.'"
That’s right, they dropped the F-bomb on their venture, a move certainly not yanked from a college business textbook.
Phase 3: Spread the word with a word you shouldn't say
But Fuckup Nights became more than a thing between friends. The idea of people gathering to talk about the messes they'd made in the business world exploded.
"Suddenly, the world realized that this crazy thing existed, and we started receiving messages from all over the world wanting to bring Fuckup Night to their cities," Gasca says.
They created a manual for hosting the event. Gasca quit her job to become a full-time director for the organization.
And from those humble beginnings over drinks in Mexico City, failure spread its wings around the world. In the U.S. alone, 113 cities regularly host Fuckup Nights. Europe boasts 104. Overall, more than 103,000 people attended a FuckUp Night last year, with 2,445 stories being told.
Phase 4: Create a brand and a think tank
Gasca has even branched off from the brand to establish a think tank, appropriately called the Failure Institute, which analyzes why businesses misfire.
In many ways, the sister organizations have re-branded failure — from the dark underbelly of entrepreneurship that dares not speak its name to an essential admission that opens the door for real learning.
Think about it: As a society, we’re assailed with the profit-churning exploits of entrepreneurs. Rambunctious startups seem unstoppable, winning over the hearts and wallets of swooning investors. Tiger blood-guzzling entrepreneurs just seem to keep winning, winning, winning.
But the real story of business is losing, losing and learning.
"I think it is so important to talk about this," Gasca says, "because, in fact, failure is more common than success in the business world."
Phase 5: Talk about failure some more
Globally, she estimates, 80 percent of all new businesses shut down after the first two years. Those figures roughly line up with those of Thomas Eisenmann, a professor at the Harvard School of Business who says three-quarters of all venture-backed startups don’t end up making their backers any money.
And yet we still obsessively toast the winners in business — the fortunate few who have managed to succeed. But those "winners" likely learned from their failures, or as prominent business author Eric Ries aptly puts it: "If you cannot fail, you cannot learn."
That's a lesson not lost on Gasca, who regularly raises a glass to what’s real: People don’t generally succeed. But they always learn from the effort.
"I think for me and many others, sharing failure in public is like an exorcism," Gasca says.
Even more importantly, when that murkiness was lifted from her shoulders, it allowed her to see that failure is more than an option. It’s an opportunity.