Safi Bahcall is a physicist turned biotech entrepreneur, and the bestselling author of the recent Next Big Idea Club selection, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. He recently sat down with David Epstein and Mirian Graddick-Weir at the Morristown Festival of Books, where he offered insights on discovering success in a “false fail.” An edited version of his reflections appears below.
In 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg was going around to raise money for Facebook, almost all investors wrote him off and dismissed him, based on the view that social networks were a fad. Because there had already been 10, 20, 30 social networks, and they had appeared for a season, and then disappeared. Around the time that Zuckerberg was seeking investors, there was a social network called Friendster, which had become very popular, and people were fleeing it for the next social network, MySpace. So all these investors said, “Social networks are just like jeans or clothing fads; users try them on for a season, and then everybody moves onto the next one.”
But there was one guy in San Francisco who said, “You know, I’ve used Friendster, and the site is crashing a lot. So are users really jumping ship because it’s a terrible business model, or is it something else?” So he got this Friendster retention data, and he found that people were hanging around on the site for hours. And Friendster had ignored advice on how to scale from a few users to a hundred to a million users—and that’s why the website was crashing.
So he said, “I don’t think it’s failing because social networks are a bad business. I think it’s failing because they have a software glitch.” So that guy, named Peter Thiel, wrote Zuckerberg a check for $500,000—and of course, he was right. Facebook developed a slightly better version that scaled, and Thiel later sold his investment for a billion dollars.
Friendster was an example of a “false fail,” and it demonstrates why understanding the false fail matters, whether it’s a flaw in an idea or a flaw in an experiment.
“No one wants to hear that their baby is ugly—and it’s even harder to keep asking why. But it’s worth it in the end.”
So what can people and companies do? It’s a principle I call “LSC”—listen to the suck with curiosity. Here’s what I mean by that: The best scientists I know were not so much that great at coming up with ideas—everybody can come up with ideas. Their superpower was investigating failure.
If you’re an entrepreneur or a scientist, and you put your heart and soul into a project, someone might say, “I don’t like it,” or an investor will walk away, or someone will reject your book proposal. And we say, “Well, they’re idiots! They don’t get it!” You dismiss them, you reject them, you attack them, and you want to turn to your friends or your mentors or your mother for reassurance.
But the best entrepreneurs and investors are leading teams that set aside that dismissiveness. You need to set aside that inclination to reject and attack, put on a Sherlock Holmes hat, and investigate with curiosity: “Could you help me understand?”
And they don’t want to give you that feedback. If you’re going to a venture capitalist, they don’t want to tell you, “That was the dumbest presentation.” They’ll never say that. They’ll say, “Oh, the timing is bad. We have a conflict.” They won’t tell you the actual answer, because they want you to come back. It’s the same with individuals—they want to maintain the relationship. But it’s only when you pull on those threads that you find that little nugget of gold, like, “Well, I didn’t want to say it, but there’s someone in France who’s got the same thing, but with a better feature.” And then you’re like, “Really? I didn’t know that, but I could do that—I could actually do it better than them.”
LSC is hard because no one wants to hear that their baby is ugly—and it’s even harder to keep asking why. But it’s worth it in the end.