Which startup failed the most spectacularly

Fuck-up-Night: The party of the failed

Francis Rafal steps quickly onto the stage. Here he is supposed to tell about his most spectacular mistakes today. Rafal has quite a few of them in his repertoire. The 26-year-old, in a T-shirt, jacket and white sneakers, has already ruined a company, incurred large debts and had to lay off six employees. All the consequences of a series of wrong decisions that Rafal recounts lightly.

His audience this evening is 300 people around 30 - students, young entrepreneurs or those who want to become one. They sit on plastic armchairs, open deck chairs or in red bean bags, some of them on the floor. They wear skinny jeans, patterned shirts, oversized sweaters, some even hoodies or a business suit. Lemonade and beer are drunk from glass bottles.

The party they are at is called Fuck-up Night, and it takes place in a glass-fronted building on Vienna's Taborstrasse. The motto: Entrepreneurs humorously report on their failures. They describe what it feels like to be very deep down. Like Rafal, who slipped into burnout "when I worked 100 hours a week to save my company". Until he finally couldn't get himself up. This period is no longer noticeable in the young man today: his voice sounds carefree, his speech is full of self-irony.

Origin in Mexico

Rafal's listeners sometimes nod in agreement, sometimes they laugh at his jokes. Almost nobody plays with the smartphone on the side, as one is used to from similar events. The fuck-up nights seem to be popular - more popular than many a lecture on start-up strategies. "You learn a lot more from failure than from success," says Dejan Stojanovic, who organizes the free event. His main occupation is advising companies on the topic of error culture.

The world's first "Nights of Failure" took place six years ago in Mexico. There were meetings among friends who shared their mistakes. They were so well attended that it became an institution. There are now such events in over 250 cities around the world, including almost all of the provincial capitals of Austria.

The evenings follow a fixed schedule: speakers tell their story in English. You can bring along a Powerpoint presentation that illustrates your career. Text is not allowed, only pictures. Speaker Rafal has also prepared slides. The first shows him with a film camera: the Viennese has been producing videos since he was 16. He taught himself the necessary knowledge.

At the age of 19, Rafal registered a trade for the first time. When he was in his early twenties, he teamed up with colleagues to produce commercials for companies. With the first donations (60,000 euros from friends and family) he set up a film studio and office for his start-up and employed staff. The first orders came. But it soon became clear: the finances were not enough, Rafal had used the money incorrectly. First he had to lay off three employees, soon after all of them. "I was naive," he admits today. Applause.

Applause for failures

After Rafal, Tanja Sternbauer picks up the microphone, a young woman in a white blazer who speaks very quickly. Sternbauer works for the start-up Live, which supports founders in the early stages. She reports how one of her protégés was recently criticized as sexist on social media. A shit storm broke out, which was soon directed against her and her team. The comments became more and more abusive and insulting. For days you couldn't think of anything else, says Sternbauer. The aggression hit her hard, she complains, and it is taken from her. Your attempt to squirm with arguments failed. Today she knows: "That was a mistake, I must not take such hostility personally." There is again applause from the audience.

Experts on "Fuck up" stages are not those who succeed in everything immediately, but those who first had to figure out how to do it better. Those who fall down and draw new strength from them. Like Rafal, who went into psychotherapy and carried on. In the meantime, he says, he has changed his business model and even founded two more companies from which he can live quite well and pay off his schools.

Fuck-up nights are a first step towards dealing more openly with mistakes. They are not a counter-trend to the high-performance principle in the start-up community. Because fates of total failure, which also abound, obviously have no place there. Maybe also because they don't have such great stories. Many crises do not have a happy ending, are not a shit storm that hurts but goes away again. And not every failure leads to success in the end, to a new, more lucrative company.

"We are business people," says organizer Stojanovic. It's about the learning process. Every mistake must obviously be made usable. Rafal says, for example: "I now know what I can't do, where I need advice." He has also benefited privately, says the young man, who now does sport every day, goes dancing five times a week and does volunteer work. "My life is much more balanced."

When Rafal has finished his lecture, hands shoot up - there are inquiries, business is going well. The listeners make Rafal's failure "usable" for themselves personally. (Lisa Breit, June 16, 2018)