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COMATCH

  • This article was written by Carrie King, a free­lance editor of COMATCH, who attended the FuckUp Night Berlin in 2017.

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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 di‹cult 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.

COMATCH

COMATCH

  • This article was written by Carrie King, a free­lance editor of COMATCH, who attended the FuckUp Night Berlin in 2017.

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