This is not a parlor game. It is a core question about our current business culture.
Shai Agassi had almost $1 billion. Investors across the globe committed their capital to his visionary startup, Better Place, which promised a wholesale reimagining of our automobile and energy industries. Electric charging stations could replace gas stations, and battery swaps would replace tank fill-ups. Agassi was touted on the cover of Wired, featured at TED, crowned on The Colbert Report. He even found his way into Fast Company, as one of our 100 Most Creative People in Business for 2009.
But as Max Chafkin so vividly details in “A Broken Place,” Agassi’s rapid ascent and daring plans turned out to be a mirage–and his $1 billion in funds were a key part of the problem. When businesses are flush with capital, they can overreach, trying to do too much too soon. They can focus on too many things, rather than on the one thing that matters most. This is the peril lurking in today’s startup world, where money flows more freely than ever to clever ideas. Agassi’s vision remains promising, but Better Place’s execution was so dismal that money and opportunity were squandered, and a good idea may have been set back decades.
At a recent Fast Company event in San Francisco, I sat with a dozen top leaders in tech, design, media, health, and retail. I peppered them with questions about creativity in business. Nothing got them more animated than the topic of failure. Not the “fail fast” mantra of Silicon Valley wags, but the more sophisticated cultural challenge of building an enterprise packed with high-achieving talent that tolerates failure–and learns from it in service of ever more keen execution.
Jon Gertner’s “The X Factor,” brings a never-before-seen culture like this to light. Gertner is the first journalist ever allowed inside the hypersecretive Google X, and he unveils a unique community where pursuing outrageous ideas such as real-life hoverboards and space elevators is embraced. This is the birthplace of Google Glass and balloon-borne Wi-Fi. And it is a place where progress is measured by rejection. Failure is expected. Indeed, it is the only route to success.
No one really wants to fail. But at Fast Company, we embrace the lessons learned from missteps and the discipline that limited resources and other real-world constraints can enforce. What’s good today will not be good enough tomorrow, whether you’re a business with $1 billion in the bank or not. Access to capital is a terrific advantage, a gift. We take it for granted at our own risk.