They’re here for a FuckUp Night. Depending on your personal tastes that phrase could describe every night out in Berlin but this event is different from anything else you’ve ever seen. Brave people take the stage to tell the assembled attendees honestly and succinctly about their failed businesses. This might seem a strange premise for an evening’s entertainment, but the rather young crowd aren’t here out of a morbid curiosity. In fact, quite the opposite. They’re here to empathise with the speakers, to laugh with them about their sillier mistakes, and perhaps most crucially, to learn from their wrong turns. Anna, a born-and-bred Berliner, has been at several FuckUp Nights and says she likes to hear real, raw stories of what it means to start up your own business. “It’s just so inspiring,” she says, “and it helps to normalise failure and makes trying something less intimidating”. Despite this, she hasn’t yet embarked on any personal business adventures.
Once the venue is packed to the rafters and the crowd has settled into a contented hum, the ice is broken by the men responsible for bringing FuckUp Nights to Berlin: Patrick Wagner and Ralf Kemmer. They explain how the night is going to proceed and introduce the speakers. First up is the funny and affable Waldemar Zeiler, the founder of the currently very successful “fairstainable” condom brand, Einhorn. The crowd are expectant but chatty. They’re not yet sure what he’s going to tell them so he needs to grab their attention and get them on-side straight away. Here’s his opening gambit: “Who here has ever had sex?”
That should do it. Zeiler hasn’t always been such a success story and in fact, it took eight failed companies to pave the way to his current business. He walks us through each one and what he learned from it. The “Be Like This Guy” video he plans to play at the end doesn’t work, and when he throws the microphone to an audience member during the Q&A, the sound of smashing glasses echoes out through the entire venue. Perhaps, a fitting end to the first talk. FuckUp Nights originally started in Mexico City, when five friends who were out having a drink decided that success stories are boring, condescending, and most importantly, useless. They were far more interested in failure because even the most spectacular fiasco can teach us something about our own lives. So much of life is about trial and error, but for some reason we keep these stories to ourselves. They invited their friends to share their personal failure stories and within six months, what had begun as a laugh with friends was rapidly turning into a movement. CEO of FuckUp Nights, Yannick Kwik, thinks that while the idea could have taken off anywhere, Mexico City was a great place to start. “What is true is that Mexico City is a little bit like a Latin American New York. It’s huge and there’s a very active entrepreneurial, creative and artistic community. So, it was probably a good place to keep up a certain frequency and when it comes to finding partners and collaborators to keep the event alive and growing sustainably.” The first other city to organise a FuckUp Night was San Sebastian in Spain. Other European cities like Stockholm and Düsseldorf jumped on and the movement began to grow organically. Kwik joined as CEO in 2014 when events were already taking place in 35 cities and needed someone to oversee their development and help the movement to grow. Now, that number had grown to 201 cities across 57 countries.
FuckUp Nights made their way to Berlin in 2015. Patrick Wagner had been a guest at the Düsseldorf edition speaking about his own fuckUp when the organisers talked him into bringing the event to Berlin. However, there was some serious competition. “There were a lot of people who wanted to do it in Berlin”, he says, “but they were very much out of this start-up accelerator world and we explained to Yannick that we wanted to do it in a more open-minded, rock n’ roll way. So, it’s not just about start-ups because to be honest for the most part start-up failures are pretty boring. It’s mostly like, “…and then our investor didn’t go to the 3rd round and then we failed”. We are much more looking for an overall view on the theme. So, it’s about loss, it’s about what happens afterwards, it’s about reaction, it’s about emotions and it’s about a detailed view of all the things between the lines that lead to failure, to fucking up.” Tickets for the FuckUp Night in Berlin today sell out in less than two hours. Wagner believes that if they put some e ort into marketing, they could easily fill 1,000 seats every time. The name FuckUp Night is both a bugbear and a feature in this regard; having a curse word in the title means they can’t pay for marketing campaigns, but it also fosters a word-of-mouth community that is a key part of its magic. Wagner is very happy with how the evening goes and especially with the strength of the speakers. Despite Berlin’s huge start-up and therefore failure scene, it can be dicult to find compelling storytellers. There’s always a danger of boring the crowd, or “that they just want to sell themselves. We have to make sure that speakers actually want to talk about their failure and not just their new business because in that case they can go to TED.”
FuckUp Nights are unpredictable by nature, but the attention to quality, detail and good storytelling usually makes for informative entertainment. Vivienne is from the US but has been living in Berlin for several years and says she was won over by the raw honesty of some of the speakers. “It sort of goes against everything you grow up hearing as an American where failure is sort of seen as a personal flaw. The lack of bullshit (at least most of the time) is super refreshing.” Her friend Tobi agrees adding, “maybe it’s a generational thing, too. Millennials have kind of had to deal with a re-write of how careers work, and that in itself means you have to deal with a lot of failure while you try new things. Everybody’s experiencing it, so it’s nice to hear stories of other people going through similar stuff”. After a warm intro from Wagner and Kemmer, the second speaker Christoph Hennig takes the stage. Hennig had set up a website from his base in Dresden. His company had the honourable goal of helping people to find work that would suit them best, and to define their own meaning of success. Unfortunately for Hennig, business success is still defined within rather narrow parameters and the company didn’t survive. However, he did succeed in charming the crowd, helped in no small way by his choice of a Winnie the Pooh comic and his advice that everyone should keep smiling, even through difficult times. The audience applauds appreciatively, and while it’s certainly the case that everyone loves an underdog story, it’s also clear that something else is happening around the topic of failure that goes far beyond one room in Berlin. Attitudes to success and failure are undergoing a significant cultural shift globally.
Yannick Kwik thinks that failure is having a moment. “I think the Silicon Valley culture has had an impact on it. This sentence ‘fail fast, fail often’ in San Francisco has helped to spread the necessity of failing when it comes to innovation. Obviously, start-ups fail more than settled corporations, so as we see the number of start-ups grow we see the number of failures grow. Start-up communities like Silicon Valley or Austin or Boulder, Colorado have authors that write and are followed by start-up communities all over the world and those authors obviously write about failure and the importance of failing quick, and failing the right way.”
Larger global movements happening right now are also impacting the way people think about how they make their way in the world. Across the globe, younger generations are now set to be poorer than their parents for the first time in history, and the effects of the 2008 financial crisis are still rippling throughout the world. The global recession became a professional turning point for many, with those who would have previously held secure jobs having to think creatively to make a career for themselves. Maybe failure is becoming trendy simply because so many people experienced it through no fault of their own. The tech boom is symptomatic of that as many people saw innovation as the only way out of difficult times. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all! Whatever the root cause, when failure started to become trendy, FuckUp Nights were perfectly poised to ride the wave.
“We were already a reference when people started to post stuff about business failure and when people started to try to have a failure culture inside their company”, says Kwik. “Business failure has been happening all the time all over the centuries but no one had thought about giving importance to it. 8 out of 10 businesses fail nowadays and we’re not learning from those experiences. Failing is always seen as a super negative thing and it is in some sense but not always. Sometimes it’s not only important, it’s necessary.” That necessity is not only forcing a lot of positive change in people’s personal careers, but also in business practices generally. Wagner believes that companies that are open about failure will play a significant role in encouraging a more understanding society. “We have to change the way we see our business, the way we treat our employees, the way we see our customers. Everything is changing right now. I hope we will be one of the thousands of little movements that make it a more liberal society.”
The final scheduled speaker of the Berlin FuckUp Night is Matthias Schütz. His company, Customazer allowed people to customise quirky personalised gifts and presents for a host of different events. Any marketer will know that the hardest thing to capture in this world is people’s attention, but the audience never flag and Schütz’ story is very well-received. At FuckUp Nights, people could just as easily be reading their teenage diary aloud because the crowd is as empathetic to stories about business mistakes as they would be to tales of adolescent crushes. The love in the room is palpable, and the appeal is enduring. Kwik thinks people keep showing up for a number of reasons. FuckUp Nights in Berlin is growing. The team are working on a book, on more workshops, and on developing.
The movement has become so strong all by itself that it’s creating a business whether Wagner and Kemmer want one or not. “We’re not really working on it but it all happens and this is a really good sign. So, this is really fun for us and yeah, let’s see how far we get!” On a global scale, FuckUp Nights looks set to continue to conquer the world and to expand to ever more cities organically. In 2014, the team released a book which looks at why companies fail in Mexico. It was so successful that they expanded the study into different sectors and countries and in doing so, developed a think tank called the Failure Institute. With data gathered from FuckUp Nights and other sources, they are building a huge database around failure that can be used by companies, countries and governments to extrapolate the reasons why businesses fail. After the last questions, the audience is invited to tell their own stories and one brave volunteer stands up to share his fuck-up. The primed crowd greet his story warmly and he ends up being incorporated as an honorary member of the speakers’ panel. As FuckUp Night ends, we’re struck by the power of its simplicity: it takes something painful, adds humour and empathy, and turns it into something inspirational, informative, and necessary. FuckUp Nights say to people: okay so you failed, but you tried something different and that should be applauded. However, it’s still a niche event and it will take broader efforts to make failure acceptance into more than a tech bubble trend. We’re living through social, cultural, political and professional shifts that require us to rethink everything, from personal beliefs to global systems. The only way to encourage people to try is to make the worst case scenario less scary. Fuckup Nights have started the movement so it’s up to us whether we run with it or not.