The Visionary Behind the TEDx of Failure | Rising Stars | OZY
For anyone starting out in business, don’t get your hopes up. Around three-quarters of venture-backed startups never make their investors money, and “the failure rate is obviously even higher” for those who fail to reach that stage, says Harvard Business School professor Thomas Eisenmann. And yet, go to any entrepreneurship conference, business seminar or networking event and it’s all chest-beating, fist-pumping success stories of runaway growth and rounds of financing.
Enter Leticia Gasca, the biggest name in the world of failure. She is the co-founder of FuckUp Nights, a global movement started in Mexico City, where entrepreneurs share stories of failure — TEDx-style events with a presence in almost 250 cities in 77 countries on six continents. It calls itself the “most active creators’ movement on the planet,” with more than 10,000 monthly attendees at a FuckUp Night somewhere in the world — from a coworking space in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to a church in Cologne, Germany, to a bar in Lima, Peru.
Gasca, now 30, was born and raised in Mexico City and headed FuckUp Nights from its inception in 2012 until 2015, when she decided to devote herself to running the Failure Institute, its spin-off research arm and the world’s first and only think tank dedicated to studying business failure. With funding from government organizations, impact investment funds and Latin American conglomerates like Sura and Femsa, as well as research partnerships with Mexico’s EGADE Business School and the Development Bank of Latin America, among others, the Failure Institute sets out to dissect business failure in different sectors and regions to allow business leaders, policymakers and investors to do themselves what they teach their kids: learn from their mistakes.
Gasca’s LinkedIn page prominently flags her professional failures, though they hardly detract from an impressive résumé that includes stints as a successful business journalist at major Mexican outlets and as communications manager of New Ventures Mexico, a huge and influential sustainable business incubator (a role in which she organized the first Latin American Impact Investing Forum, now the largest such event in the region). “I am a failed social entrepreneur,” she tells OZY proudly, referring to her attempt as a business student 12 years ago to launch a social enterprise, marketing handicrafts made by indigenous women to wealthy Mexico City consumers. “We did it by the book,” she says, but her financial forecasts were “not realistic at all.” After two years it became Gasca’s first entrepreneurial fuckup. “I’ve heard this so many times from entrepreneurs who fail,” she says: “Unexpected costs” destroy many a startup.
This was one of many stories shared by Gasca and four friends one night in 2012 over shots of mezcal; they realized talking openly about their failures made it “one of the most meaningful business conversations ever,” she says. After settling on a regulated format (each speaker would have seven minutes and 10 slideshow images to share their story), the first FuckUp Night was organized a couple of weeks later — the first of around 1,000 events that have taken place to date. The growth has been totally organic, says Yannick Kwik, the new CEO of FuckUp Nights. They cannot market events on Facebook, Google or Twitter “because we have the word ‘fuck’ in our name,” but changing the name is out of the question (although hosts in certain Islamic countries are allowed to use the acronym, FUN). “When someone fails, they say ‘Fuck!,’ they don’t say ‘Darn this’ or anything else,” says Kwik, arguing that FuckUp Nights’ “punk, underground” roots have honesty and frankness at their core. Potential hosts from cities around the world contact the FuckUp Night team seeking a license to use the brand for a small monthly fee. Around 40 companies, from Coca-Cola to Microsoft to Citibank, have paid to host private FuckUp Night events for employees.
The movement’s research wing was also born by chance after a friend asked Gasca to name the most common reasons for failure she’d heard from FuckUp Night speakers. “I was like, oh, my God! I used to be a journalist! I should have made a spreadsheet!” Breaking the taboo of talking about failure is a difficult task, and FuckUp Nights, with 200 entrepreneurs around the world sharing stories every month, provides “a blue ocean of knowledge” to learn from, says Gasca. Although it may not seem methodologically rigorous — what with the selection bias of attendees at the rather raucous, beer-fueled FuckUp Nights, it’s better than what academics often have to work with. “One of the key issues is access to representative data,” says Deniz Ucbasaran, professor of entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School in the U.K., who studies entrepreneurial failure. Most large-sample academic studies tend to focus on venture-backed tech firms, says Harvard’s Eisenmann, the alternative being individual case studies of postmortems from failed founders. The sources of recent research into “The Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail” by the business analytics group CB Insights essentially boil down to a bunch of quotes lifted from failed companies’ blog posts.
As for FuckUp Nights and the Failure Institute as potential sources of new insight? “Anything that helps people talk about failure and helps normalize failure is helpful,” says Ucbasaran. The taboo surrounding business failure varies by culture: While the Swedish government collects comprehensive data, and “it’d be cliché to call [failure] a badge of honor in Silicon Valley,” says Eisenmann, “you really don’t want to be a business failure in Japan or Germany.” After Mexico, Germany is home to the most FuckUp Night host cities in the world, allowing Gasca to work on a Global Failure Index that will collect an unprecedented level of data from across the globe. Gasca’s “groundbreaking work … is critical to strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Maria Cavalcanti, president of Pro Mujer, a nonprofit providing financial services to women in Latin America and partnering with the Failure Institute to research the causes of failure for low-income female entrepreneurs in the region.
It’s pretty “ironic,” says Gasca, that her greatest success has come from studying failure. Now all she has to do is not fuck it up.