Failures and fuckups
Blunders are rarely spoken about publicly and candidly. Especially so in the startup world — where a lot depends on how successful others perceive you to be. Be it in the context of fundraising, hiring or sales, your successful milestones to date and your success potential are the main factors you'll get judged for.
But, as Nikita-Mark Tenderes said at Fuckup Nights Tallinn Vol 1, "If you're an entrepreneur, you probably fuck up a dozen times a day." It just doesn't get talked about as much.
What are FuckUp Nights?
FuckUp Nights is a global movement and event series that encourages sharing stories of failure.
"Fail fast" is not a new concept in the startup world. In fact, applauding the virtue of failure has even started to spread from startups in garages to the halls and walls of corporations. Move fast and break things. Fail fast. Fail Cheap. Fail forward.
But the FuckUp Nights concept is not about celebrating failure in itself. And it's not about sharing the stories of how failure leads to success. It's not even always about learning — sometimes a failure is just a failure, and there isn’t much you can learn from it.
"We don’t worship failure, and we don’t want you to fail."
- FuckUp Nights HQ
FuckUp Nights are really about celebrating the resilience.
While it is just plain comforting to hear about the blunders of other professionals, the real deal is understanding the failures, learning from them (if there is anything to learn), and giving the people who failed and lived to tell the tale a kudos for keeping at it.
Stories from FuckUp Nights Tallinn Vol. 1
The FuckUp Nights Tallinn Vol. 1 took place at Lift99 in Tallinn and featured three resilient professionals: Argo Sildvee, Nikita-Mark Tenderes and Avery Schrader. Here are the fuckup stories they shared.
The story of 100 000 doors: Argo Sildvee
Argo Sildvee has earned the title of "exports pro" in Estonia. His fuckup story starts with an order for 100 000 doors that he took up for fulfillment at a factory in China he was responsible for.
Knowing not all business deals are legit in China (or any part of the world, really), Argo evaluated the order thoroughly. And everything seemed legitimate — the Skype calls with the customer's representatives were knowledgeable in construction and in the specifics of doors. Even the Swedish Embassy in China confirmed the company is legit, and its background checks out.
After the negotiations had been going on for a while, it was time to sign the contract. And the customer requested that Argo should fly over to China in person to sign the contract. Trips to Asia were a regular thing for Argo, to the extent he was tired of the 9+ hours flights. So, he was glad when his factory manager Indrek and CEO Pearl offered to fly to the customer themselves — as they were based out of China themselves anyway.
On the day of the agreed meeting, Argo woke up to a text message that said:
“Where the hell did you send them?”
Argo's factory manager and CEO had landed at the destination, a drunk taxi driver was there to greet them at the airport, and then took them to a sketchy bar in a slummy part of town. At the bar, they were told, “If you want to get out, you need to pay the bar bill.”
The bill was not cheap. Luckily Indrek, a bodybuilder who can be intimidating when necessary, and Pearl, a smart Chinese businesswoman, managed to negotiate the bill down to about 500 euros and make their way back to the airport.
Realizing they had been scammed, Argo turned to the Swedish Embassy again for clarifications. How could a this be a legitimate company?
The Swedish Embassy contacted the head office of the company with details of the ordeal, and got the response: “Deeply sorry to hear about this, but you are not the first one.”
The scammers had hijacked the company's email addresses, hired people who knew about construction and doors and systematically scammed people like Argo. According to the real company's HQ, Argo was lucky to have lost just 500 euros — this was the smallest of the victims' losses.
What did Argo learn from this fuckup of sending his factory manager and CEO to a sketchy bar in a slum to be blackmailed? His takeaway was as follows
"You cannot control all info until the very end, but you should try to, as much as possible."
- Argo Sildvee
Looking back, Argo is unsure he could have avoided this blunder completely. But he is grateful they got out of it at only 500EUR direct loss.
The story of the Golden Boy: Nikita-Mark Tenderes
Nikita-Mark Tenderes' fuckup story starts with him buying half of a company that's selling online courses to the Russian market.
As the business started growing rapidly, Nikita-Mark needed to start hiring people for different roles, including customer support, CPA managers, data analysts, software developers...
During yet another interview with a young man, Nikita-Mark realized he had found a brilliant guy, who fit their team really well. He knew everything! He knew software development, he knew about systems administration, design, and most importantly, CPA!
An all in one guy! For Nikita-Mark, this was the Golden Boy. Needless to say, he was hired.
In 12 months, the business had grown 17 times in profit. And this much growth means there are a lot of things that needed to be figured out. This is where the Golden Boy came in with his many talents.
Months passed, and the company's growth stalled. Revenues were still high, but no longer growing. As the company stabilized, Nikita-Mark gelt the need to delegate some of the Golden Boy's responsibilities to different people. While the Golden Boy initially pushed back on this move, Nikita-Mark hired a CPA agency to help manage everything to do with CPA.
One day, Nikita-Mark got a call from their CPA manager...
"We went through all your Google Ads and the numbers don’t really match with your internal numbers. They’re kind of like... fake numbers."
Wait, what? Nikita-Mark did not want to believe the agency at first. He had been working with the Golden Boy for years by then, and trusted him to be a 1-in-a-million genius type guy.
Nikita-Mark tried calling the Golden Boy, but no answer. He wrote to him, to please explain whether and how the agency's insight could be mistaken.
A day later, Nikita-Mark received a confession from the Golden Boy. It was a lengthy explanation, but to summarize, it said:
"Sorry, I was actually stealing money from your company. I made up these reports, please don’t kill me. I’ll pay it all back to you!"
- the Golden Boy
Nikita-Mark's first reaction was: let's fire him.
But how do you just go and fire the Golden Boy? He knows the business through and through. He had accesses to the company's data and systems that even Nikita-Mark didn't have.
As Nikita-Mark said, then only the real stress started.
In due time, Nikita-Mark figured out how to fire him and thought the fuckup story was behind them, so he could move forward.
Then, there was a new call from the CPA managers:
"You know, we can see a new, fresh competitor in the business..."
The Golden Boy had started a competitor business. In fact, the company had been registered when he was still working with Nikita-Mark's company. A real cherry on the cake!
What can we learn from this story though?
Looking back, Nikita-Mark admits he was a lot more naive back when he hired the Golden Boy. While it's not clear whether this fuckup could have been avoided, we can laud Nikita-Mark for how he handled this blunder: he got rid of the Golden Boy in a way where his company kept growing to new heights without him. He solidified his business in a way where this kind of fuckups can no longer happen.
The biggest lesson, though, is probably in how all of this did not really undermine Nikita-Mark's business. Why? Because even though the Golden Boy stole from them, never paid them back and copied their business... Nikita-Mark's business is still winning. As Nikita-Mark says, the Golden Boy couldn’t copy what really matters: their mentality, vision and team.
The story of the Kirby and Milo: Avery Schrader
"You never do anything you think you’re going to fuck up."
- Avery Schrader
Avery "the promising Canadian" Schrader once read an article on Forbes about how Tallinn, Estonia is the Silicon Valley of Europe. That was enough to convince him to move to Tallinn (no joke). Soon after his move, he started Makery, which has since evolved into Modash, an influencer discovery platform.
The early days of his business were full of enthusiasm. As Avery put it, his hiring strategy went along the lines of "You have a pulse? You’re hired! You have 23 spare minutes on Sundays? You’re overqualified!"
This resulted in a startup of 9 people, and no product. A promising start! Among the early hires was Hendry, who became the co-founding CTO, as well as a third co-founder, who had lots of experience and eventually became Avery's crutch in the business.
The technical members started writing code, and Avery worked on pre-sales. Soon enough, they got their first real customers! And not just any customers, but some big names, such as Latvia's biggest telco business.
They raised money, and now had employees!
What this meant in practice for Avery was that pressure got real. He started questioning himself, along the lines of:
"What’s the role of the CEO and can I really do this thing?"
Ignoring his insecurities meant that soon enough, dissonance crept into the team. Especially so with the third co-founder with a good resume of lots of experiences.
Then there was a first quitter, the first team member to leave the company. Avery realized they weren’t having fun anymore while building this thing. And he was busy, just with everything besides the core insecurities that were bubbling up inside him.
"I was just keeping busy to avoid facing my insecurities."
- Avery on the toughest times of his fuckupreneurship
This is where Kirby and Milo came in. Avery calls them his "best support system ever", they are his sister and her son. (Whether or not Avery slightly teared up when showing a picture of them at the FuckUp Night in Tallinn, only the people there will know.)
At one point when Avery was talking to them, he realized something really important. When building a business, you're given advice to move fast. Sure, but this is life advice too. Life moves fast, so...
"There’s no time to be a little bitch."
- Avery on realizing his fuckup
Avery admitted his fuckup here was trying to shy away from facing his insecurities. It was time to face whatever had to be faced head on.
So, he had a real conversation with Hendry and they ended up asking the third co-founder to leave the team. This was the real tough decision that had to be made and had been postponed for too long. And this decision then snowballed into making some more big changes really fast.
What can we learn from this? It turns out that once the tough decisions have been made, it becomes very natural to ask "what else is wrong here?". And this can be a catalyst for your venture.
Long story short, Avery's realization that he needs to face things head-on was a game-changer. After several other changes, they were able to turn the company morale around. They ended up bagging one of the fastest growing companies in the world as their customer.
Avery's main takeaway from his fuckup? Face the difficult stuff head-on.
This calls for some reflection: what hard decisions are you not making right now?
Conclusion: it takes resilience to move on from blunders
The three stories from FuckUp Nights Tallinn Vol.1 are honest, brutal, and real. And yes, all of them have fairly happy endings, given that the fuckups were not fatal to any business involved. It may even seem like the failures paved the fuckupreneurs' path to success.
But the real truth is that Argo, Nikita-Mark and Avery probably would have succeeded even without these blunders. In a parallel universe, they may have avoided these fuckups and still ended up doing well in their business.
What these fuckup stories highlight, though, is how resilience can play a key role in the growth of something beautiful, regardless of the fuckups that happened along the way. At FuckUp Nights Tallinn, Argo, Nikita-Mark and Avery stood on a stage and told their fuckup stories with a notes of humor and cheer. They might have messed up in the short term, but they owned the blunders, stood up and moved on.
And these stories are definitely worth sharing.
Until the next FuckUp Nights, Tallinn!