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Make It 'til You Make It

Originally published May 15, 2014

In 2009, back when I was the creative director of a music magazine, I sat on a panel of music industry professionals. The audience was mostly comprised of bands and curious non-music-industry people, so when it came to the Q&A part of the evening, the questions were predictable. One of the less surprising questions was: “I’m in a band. How do we get booked for bigger shows?”

The answer — from the owner and booking manager of a concert venue — caught me off guard: “Don’t play bad shows.” He went on to explain that, if you’re just starting to play shows, you have to pick your battles: only perform when you’re sure there’s going to be a big audience and a good stage to play on. Only play when you’re sure you’re going to get paid. In other words: play it safe.

At the time, this was the opposite of my thinking. I challenged his answer: “You have to take risks sometimes. If you wait for the sure success, you might miss a good opportunity. You might play a few bad shows, but it’ll pay off.” We sparred a bit, and eventually moved on to other questions. I was sure I was right: failure is worth the risk.

In starting a few companies over the past 5 years, I think back to this one brief moment often, and more and more I’m convinced that the venue owner had a great point. When your record is 0-0, a loss means much more. In the realm of business, having a track record of success — even a short one — can make a big difference. In a previous note, I mentioned that failure-worship has gone a bit too far, and it becomes more and more apparent every day.

When looking for success, patience is undervalued. The “stay hungry” motto is a rallying cry to the fail-fast set, and the perception is that the number lines on your CV are in some way translatable to ability, experience, or success. My point is this: fewer victories with fewer defeats is no better or worse than greater victories with greater defeats. Define success on your own terms, and don’t let the pace of the rising stars in headline-writing startups dictate your path.