In today’s start-up landscape, competition is fierce—and so is the pressure to tout your upside. That’s why in places like Silicon Valley everyone adopts a pose of world-winning invulnerability. Everyone is “crushing it.” Success is the lingua franca of the realm.
In the nonprofit world, the hype may resonate at a subtler pitch. But the need to project a façade of success may be even stronger. Philanthropists aren’t looking to invest in people or organizations with a track record marked by a few near misses (let alone a full-scale disaster). They want to fund proven, predictable winners.
Fuckup Nights, a global event series that originated in Mexico City, is working to expand the discourse around success and failure. The series gives entrepreneurs a chance to reflect on bad decisions, missed opportunities, episodes of poor execution, and pivots that never paid off. Unlike TED, a conference series that focuses on “ideas worth spreading,” Fuckup Nights showcases ideas worth shedding. It is, as its founders have suggested, the anti-TED.
“Everything started because I was drinking mescal,” says Leticia Gasca, who is one of those founders. It was September 2012, and at the time she worked as an editor at the Mexican business magazine Expansion. One night, she got together with some friends. “People say mescal doesn’t get you drunk, it gets you magical,” she explains. “So, basically, we were magical—five friends, all of us with entrepreneurial backgrounds. We realized that we had all fucked up businesses in the past but had never shared those stories, despite being really close friends.” Once the sharing process began, it went on for several hours.
Eager to continue that dialogue, Gasca and her friends decided to repeat the experience in a more formal way two weeks later. They invited about two dozen friends to join them in a Mexico City co-working space. That night, three invitees shared their stories of business failure using a fixed format format. Inspired by PechaKucha Night, a similar series that has its roots in Tokyo’s graphic design community, the Fuckup Nights team asked the speakers to organize their presentations around a series of 10 slides that would appear on-screen and automatically change after 40 seconds. Each presenter, in other words, had slightly less than seven minutes to address the crowd. (PechaKucha Night uses slightly different guidelines. It requires presenters to use 20 slides, and each slide stays on-screen for 20 seconds.)
The new format may not have packed the 110-proof magic of mescal, but it made for a set of lively, fast-moving presentations. Fuckup Nights evolved into a monthly ritual in Mexico City, and Gasca and her cofounders started using social media to spread the word about upcoming events. “Then someone from Spain read about us and asked if she could organize a Fuckup Night in her city using the same branding and the same format,” Gasca recalls. “It was a huge surprise to us, but we said yes.”
Since then, Fuckup Nights has expanded rapidly. Along with spreading to dozens of additional cities in Mexico, it has established outposts in Japan, New Zealand, and the United States, and in countries throughout Africa, Europe, and South America. By March 2015, Fuckup Nights organizers had held gatherings in more than 100 cities worldwide.
Where It’s Safe to Fail
Failure has long been a taboo subject. Yet it’s a remarkably common experience. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 49 percent of all business establishments survive more than five years. Now there’s a venue where entrepreneurs can discuss the experience of failure openly. “People are always trying to show their best face,” says Veronica French, who has helped organize Fuckup Nights events in Berkeley, Calif., and San Francisco. “We want to foster a culture where it’s okay to talk about ways that you’re not perfect.” (In her day job, French works at Everwise, a San Francisco-based company that operates an online mentoring platform.)
For those who decide to air their mistakes and missteps at a Fuckup Nights event, the rewards of candor outweigh the risks of exposure. “It’s a very cathartic, raw experience,” says Roderick Campbell, cofounder and CEO of CommitChange, an online fundraising platform for nonprofits. Campbell shared his failure story at an event that took place this past March in San Francisco. He talked about a Web content development company that he created when he was in college. The venture attracted multinational clients and at one point had four full-time employees. Then he “tanked it,” Campbell explains: “The work that we were doing was all about me trying to be ‘the creative tech genius,’ and that just killed everything. It was pretty embarrassing.”
Campbell runs a for-profit company, but he works extensively with nonprofits, and he suggests that the Fuckup Nights model should appeal to those who have struggled to build an organization with a social mission. “If you’re an entrepreneur advocating for large-scale social change, you constantly have to try things that people have never done before,” he says. “Creating a new company or organization is a dirty, clumsy, awkward process. I would love to see more entrepreneurs—especially social entrepreneurs—acknowledging that.”
Being candid about failure can be especially difficult in the nonprofit world. “There’s a very strong norm against admitting that a grant you received, or a service you designed, failed. That’s the nail in the coffin for the next round of funding,” says Jane Wei-Skillern, adjunct associate professor at the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. If a program proves to be ineffective, or if it loses efficacy over time, there is usually little incentive to face that reality. “But the only way we are going to learn in these situations is by acknowledging failures and changing our behavior accordingly,” Wei-Skillern argues.
Ben Powell, who has presented at Fuckup Nights gatherings in San Francisco and Granada, Nicaragua, notes that the spirit of such events promotes vulnerability as well as candor. “It’s not just about what you learn from failures,” says Powell, founder and CEO of Agora Partnerships, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that works with entrepreneurs who focus on social and environmental issues in Latin America. “When you’re vulnerable, you get people to listen. So it’s a way to create energy in the room where people are actually listening and empathizing. And empathy is really important if you want to foster an environment where people can be creative.”
Can Failure Succeed?
The universality of failure is one reason that Fuckup Nights has spread so far, so fast. But equally important is the way that Gasca and her colleagues have allowed others to replicate their model. At this point, they don’t charge a franchise or licensing fee. “We only ask organizers for three things,” Gasca says. “The first is to follow the same model—three or four people sharing their failure stories in seven minutes and 10 images. The second is to follow our branding. The third is to share their content with us.”
That relatively loose framework gives local Fuckup Night incarnations ample scope for innovation. At an event held last year in Berkeley, organizers invited volunteers from the audience to share their own failure experiences. “We wanted to get the crowd participating,” says French. “After the scheduled speakers spoke, the volunteers spoke for a minute each. We had a student who talked about handing in a paper late. We had a photographer who talked about freelance work and balancing which gigs to take and which gigs to turn down.”
At Fuckup Nights headquarters in Mexico City, Gasca and her colleagues are exploring other ways to broaden the reach of their movement. They plan, for example, to aggregate all of the content generated by local Fuckup Nights groups—mostly video clips of speaker presentations—at the organization’s website (Fuckupnights.com). “The idea is to have all of these failure stories in the same place, available to anyone on the planet,” Gasca says.
In April 2013, Gasca quit her magazine job to devote all of her attention to the Fuckup Nights organization. During that period, the organization began to raise funds from several sources: Posible, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship; an impact investing fund called Promotora Social Mexico; the government of the Mexican state of Guanajuato; and FEMSA, the company that bottles Coca-Cola in Mexico. That funding covers the salaries of Gasca and one other full-time employee. It also enabled Fuckup Nights to publish a Spanish-language book, El Libro Del Fracaso (“The Book of Failure”). In October 2014, the organization launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund an English translation of the book, and it plans to publish that version sometime this year.
As yet, however, Fuckup Nights has not established a sustainable business model. The decision not to charge a fee to local organizers and the practice of offering free admission have eliminated obvious potential sources of income. But members of the Fuckup Nights community are experimenting with other revenue options. In April, the team that organizes Fuckup Nights in Düsseldorf, Germany, started selling Tshirts and sweatshirts branded with the Fuckup Nights logo. The team plans to offer those items at cost to Fuckup Nights organizers in other cities as well. “In the future, we’d like to provide individual designs to [other] communities,” says Benjamin Teeuwsen, a member of the Fuckup Nights team in Düsseldorf. The central organization in Mexico City will receive licensing fees from the sale of such merchandise.
And what if those efforts don’t pan out? What if Gasca and her colleagues fail to sustain the momentum of Fuckup Nights? At least they will have an entertaining and potentially instructive story to share over a bottle of mescal.