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Voices: TechTown CEO on the value of failure

Ned Staebler, CEO of TechTown Detroit

I am a failure. 
 
There. I said it. It wasn't so hard. But, I'll admit, it wasn't fun either. 
 
I don't mean that I've never done anything worthwhile. I know that most people wouldn't look at my life and use "failure" to describe it. But there's no getting around it. There have been very meaningful things I've tried to accomplish that just didn't work out. I know I'm not alone. But I also know that in Michigan—and to be fair, in most of the country—we've become so scared of failure that we've stopped taking risks.
 
Not only that, but as if to justify our own aversion to taking a leap, we chastise those who do. You know what I'm talking about: a person, an entrepreneur, a company tries something, fails, and gets absolutely pilloried in the press and on social media. I get it. Schadenfreude is a powerful emotion. But every time people see a risk-taker get hammered, they become less likely to take a risk of their own.
 
Even writing about failure is hard (I was supposed to get this to the editors weeks ago). But here it goes.

About eight years ago, I decided to pursue what had been a lifelong passion of mine. I come from a family that has a long history of political engagement and that genetic inclination was reinforced by six years at University of Detroit Jesuit, where I walked by a plaque every day urging us to be "Men for Others."
 
So I decided to run for a seat in the state legislature. I made this decision in partnership with my wife who was tremendously supportive, although she knew it would mean long hours away from her and our young son, and would also require a significant pay cut. But once we made the decision, we were all in.

I knew it would be difficult. I hadn't run for office before. My opponent had been an elected official since college. Though confident, I was scared. What if I lost in front of my family, my friends, and my entire community? How would I live that down?
 
I did what I always do when faced with a challenge: I conducted an analysis of the situation, identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. I talked with hundreds of people about the race, the issues, the district, campaigns, and the political climate. I built a really solid team and advisory group, then sat down with them and wrote a detailed plan with very clear metrics and goals. 
 
It was an ambitious plan. I took fundraising and door knocking numbers from similar campaigns and doubled them. I decided to knock on every likely voting door at least three times. I planned to send each voter 10 pieces of mail. We made huge lists of groups to meet with, events to attend, people to reach out to. I even joined Facebook and Twitter! (I had previously been very skeptical of these mediums.)
 
I'm proud to say that the team killed it. We hit and exceeded our goals, then set new, higher ones. I picked up almost every endorsement I sought. Political pros routinely told me we were running a great campaign.

Not everything went smoothly, of course, but we had built so much redundancy into the plan that we seemed headed for an easy victory. In fact, a small poll three weeks out showed us ahead by 13 points. I shared this with no one, and instead redoubled our efforts. 

Election Day arrived. Turnout numbers across the district came in well above our targets—it was clear we were headed for a big win. I was waiting to get results at a local elementary school when my campaign manager called and said two words that echo in my head even today: "Something's wrong."
 
Long story short, I lost a squeaker: 200 votes out of 10,000. I was devastated. I wish I could say I hadn't really wanted it. I wish I could say I didn't try that hard. But I did and I did. I threw my heart and soul and energy for 11 months into it. I lost 25 pounds. I knocked on 24,000 doors. I spent almost every waking hour trying to win this race. And I lost. 
 
I spent two days alternating between analyzing numbers, receiving condolence calls, and staring at the ceiling. It was painful to leave the house. Everywhere I went I ran into someone (often perfect strangers) who came up to me to say they were sorry I lost. This continued for three years. Running for office is an incredibly public process, and when you lose there is nowhere to hide. 

So, why do I share this? Because I was afraid to run. But I did it, and I did it to the best of my ability. 
 
I lost, but I lived. Not only that, but I learned a million things—about myself, my friends, my family, my core values. I learned that I was capable of overcoming powerful fears. I learned to shrug off criticism from those who only wish to wound and to listen carefully to those who want to help. I learned that my wife and kids will still love and respect me. In fact, I think they were even prouder of me just for trying.

The lessons I learned through this process have helped me immeasurably in the seven years since the election. The pain forced me to think, learn, adapt, grow, and improve in a way that success never has.
 
I'm now the VP of a major university and the CEO of a successful nonprofit. I'm certain that without the lessons from the campaign I would not be either of those things today.

When I get introduced at a panel or a speaking engagement, they always talk about my jobs, the colleges I attended, or the awards I've won. But you know what I wish they would mention? My failures. They shaped me—they shape all of us—far more than our successes. I believe this so firmly that I won't hire you if you can't tell me about a time you failed. 
 
So that is my challenge to our ecosystem: let's start telling our small businesses and entrepreneurs not just that it's ok to fail, but that it is essential. Your growth—and that of your business, our city, our region and our state—depends on it.
 
Ned Staebler is vice president for Economic Development at Wayne State University and the president and CEO of TechTown Detroit. This is the first in a series on failure sponsored by TechTown. 
 
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