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Permission to Fail (keen.io)
347 points by RKoutnik on Dec 30, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

Hi there. Thanks for reading my piece. I was delighted when one of my teammates informed it was trending on HN today. Then I noticed there were 7 comments and I got pretty anxious. I was nearly too afraid to click and read them. But now that I'm here, wow, I don't know what to say. I'm tearing up, flooded with relief, filled with gratitude that people seem to understand not only I what I was trying to say, but a little bit of what we are trying to do with Keen. Thank you.

It's probably an overshare, but this is one of the first things I've published since returning from maternity leave. I was feeling more vulnerable than usual, and the support from the community means a lot to me personally. Thanks again.

So moved by this post! I wish more CEOs had the courage to post their feelings about how tough it is to keep things together in the face of adversity. This is well thought out, well worded, and completely amazing. THANK YOU for putting a spotlight on what is something most CEOs are afraid to talk about for fear that it makes them look weak. Bravo! Keep it coming. Keen.io is an amazing product and I wish you and your team all the best!

I think the reason this is effective is not so much that you've given yourself permission to fail, but rather realising that failure isn't as big a catastrophe as you initially felt it to be.


Congratulations on your new arrival! Ours is ten weeks old today and it certainly adds a different kind of stress / happiness to just about everything! :)

I've just posted a longer reply to one of the other comments on here, and so to keep this one brief, hats off to you for writing this and posting it, it's so important (and hard) to get these types of internal comms right. Our angel investors were great for helping remind us of the benefits of being more open internally.

Good luck for 2016!

May I add my Congrats on the new addition as well (ours is six weeks now).

Also, thank you for the post - it's high time we remembered an Enterprise used to be a single goal, a time limited quest that brought people together and then disbanded them.

We should out live our organisations - and they should serve us. Not the other way round.

Good luck.

I commented in this thread as well... continued...

You are awesome!

We had our 3rd 4 months ago, dealing with this right after being back. Kudos to you. Seriously.

In this day and age that everything is so disconnected and artificial, it's just a delight to read something like that.

Looks like I have to play bad cop here. I appreciate the openness, but as a potential customer... not so much. Because while sentences like this are kind of inspiring:

  Instead, let’s give ourselves permission to fail.
  And you know what? It’s okay if we’re not. If Keen busts, we’ll all find new grand adventures. 
As a (no longer) potential customer, they clash harshly with this one:

  In last week’s outage, we had our first major data loss in over 12 months.
Because you know what? When I trust you with my money and my company's data, I don't want those precious assets to be with someone who's been given permission to fail. I really do want it to be someone who tells the troops this: "Let’s double-down, work through the weekend, push through the issues, get ‘er done, rally!"

The issue to me is public declarations vs private thoughts.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with waking up covered in flop sweat, wondering if you're destroyed your business and the job situations of people you genuinely like and appreciate.

However, I've found that a good part of leadership is, in fact, shutting the hell up when "routine" bad things are happening because too much openness can stress out employees. By "routine" I mean pretty much anything other than the certain death of the company, at which time they deserve reasonably early notice).

Hi Tom. I was anticipating a response like this and I'm glad you shared your perspective. One of the reasons this piece was difficult to share is that the last thing that I want my customers thinking about is failure.

Let me clarify one thing (and perhaps I should do this in the blog post as well?). Our team cares incredibly deeply about our commitments to our customers and their data. I 100% agree with you that we can _and should_ double-down and work through the weekend when that's what it takes to maintain that commitment.

The thing is, we already do that, and our team was already doing it at the time I wrote this message. People at Keen take their responsibilities to our customers and to each other very seriously. That's why we haven't had another loss since then, now almost 12 months later. When I wrote this message, the problem wasn't that people weren't working hard enough. It was that we were stressed out and burnout was becoming a risk. In this situation, reminding people to take a deep breath and get some perspective seemed to be really helpful.

There definitely is a time and a place to rally and to push through, and we have plenty of experience with that too :)

Love the evenhanded answer, Michelle. And I can't tell you how similar I used to be in that regard. I believed stoutly in a sort of open source management approach and promised myself when I was a youth I would do precisely as you are doing. Over the years I have found it to be suboptimal. Thousands of years' worth of management theory turn out to be a useful precedent. But--and I mean this sincerely--I hope it works for you. Would be a better world, I think, if your way worked best.

My instinct is that this post being on the front of HN, along with the tenor of the comments, is evidence of it working. I'd wager that her post is serving as an incredibly effective piece of content marketing. HN is the perfectly audience for Keen's product, and getting on the front of HN for a full day is a big win both for reaching customers and new recruits. Certainly some people will have your reaction, but another significant percentage will have a positive reaction, as demonstrated in the comments.

Actually the management theory pretty much agrees with Michelle on this one.

The old-school Taylorist-style management theory that you're probably thinking of has been thoroughly debunked now. It doesn't lead to good outcomes.

Leadership theory is much more nuanced now, there's a recognition that the best leadership style to use in any given situation is very much based on context and team membership.

Management need to deal with the situation as it is, because that builds trust that management are actually dealing with the situation.

I feel like you are getting distracted by the sound bite. This post is not about telling employees that it's okay for them to do mediocre work - it's about having a healthy perspective about their jobs and not getting emotionally entangled with failures. Rationally, this should always lead to better outcomes, aggregated over a large number of employees and personality types. Working on one of these double-down-rally type companies myself, I can say that all you would have to show for it after sufficient time is burnout and mental exhaustion. You seldom feel like you are doing your best work when you're in crunch mode all the time.

As to expecting companies to keep private thoughts to themselves, and maintaining a different public front - are you really better off paying money to a company where the staff could riot and quit at the wrong time, as opposed to one where they ask you to manage expectations more realistically?

But this does inform why leadership and PR so rarely attempt to reach out to the public with honesty and frankness. Without critical reading, a lot of people simply "take it the wrong way", and the wrong kind of misapprehension can do significant damage to their public image.

If it's business, it's business. There's a contract, with clauses agreed to by both parties on what happens if one party fails to live up to its end of the agreement. "Permission to fail", then, means "Permission to activate those clauses dispassionately, potentially terminate the relationship, and move on with life"; in short, professional distance. That is business.

If you can't afford to lose it, make backups. If you are going to throw chairs if you lose it, get therapy. If you demand five nines and a hand-holding number you can call over Christmas, pay for it, and don't be surprised when five nines isn't some magic security blanket.

In short, you get as much "Rally" as you pay for, and if you think you can buy someone else's emotions you're going to be taken for a lot of rides by a lot of people who are better stage performers than developers.

What you're describing sounds good, but it is not realistic, sustainable or healthy. The way to improve and grow is to fail early and often, and learn from it. If you create a company culture where failure is not tolerated, people will burn themselves out trying to prevent failure, and when it does happen, they will deny responsibility, break the rules, and sometimes even break the law in order to cover it up.

This is almost certainly what happened in the Volkswagen scandal, for example. Someone (probably a large group of someones) fucked up and shipped a car that didn't pass emissions tests, so they covered up their mistake rather than admit it.

In your example, what could happen is that they have an outage and your data is lost anyway, but they just don't even tell you--maybe you find out after complaining, or from the media.

"Companies" tend to be this faceless creature. You saw one you saw them all.

Posts like this make companies about the people, as it should. Open atmosphere outside the company leads to open atmosphere inside the company and the other way around.

If you talk about the failures inside the company it makes people connect, it makes them understand what you are about, maybe this random engineer or QA guy/gal will have the idea to push you through?

Companies love to share big number, new clients, no one ever shares challenges and bad things happening. In this VC run world you are running scared that it will say something about you.

Great post. Kudos to the Keen team.

This is such an important point, and it's very easy to overlook the internal comms (whilst all the while being open and personable to the outside).

One thing that really, really helped us was our angel investors asking for a monthly update. They were very hands off, but just wanted to be kept in the loop about what was going on.

Aside from it taking a while to get out of the habit of 'putting off sending the email until the next big piece of company news was out' (which is never a good idea), it was amazing to see the different reactions to sending them a very personal, informal email with updates not only about the company but about the team as well, rather than just a fact / numbers based 'company update'.

I'm sure this is obvious to anyone on the outside, but it's so easy to miss the internal stuff when you're growing (both traction and team). I highly recommend that anyone starting a business finds someone they trust (investor or not) with whom they can send such a monthly update. Not only will it help put things in perspective, it's good practice for when it's necessary to write ones to the team like this one from Keen.

Not discussing the bad things has the opposite effect of what people think. Most employees know that something not good is going with the company. Not discussing it makes people wonder if it's bad or worse.

If I was looking for a new job, I would apply to Keen right now, saying "Hey, I think I can help here...". As an employee inside the company I would be extra creative and incentivized to make sure everything I do has an impact.

Success can have a strange effect. It raises the bar for you. The merit of your accomplishments become relative to what you did yesterday. If you don't out-perform past results, you're failing. And if you're failing... then aren't you a failure?

I think we forget that failure is the default state. Which redefines success to be making any attempt at all. Like Edison said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

From Andre 3000: "Baby boy you're only funky as your last cut, you focus on the past your ass'll be a has what"

From Jay-Z..."Treat my first like my last, and my last like my first"

The intro on that song is even better; it's a Biggie sample from an unpublished 1996 interview [some "like"s omitted]:

"Puff [Daddy] told me, the key to this joint, the key to staying on top of things, is treat everything like it's your first project, nomsayin'. Like it's your first day back when you was an intern. That's how you try to treat things, just stay hungry."

A person only fails when he/she stops trying.

I get what you mean, but I feel like sometimes it's important to just stop if you're repeatedly failing at something. I often find that taking a break (stopping trying for a bit) gives my subconscious time to breathe and figure out what my conscious brain couldn't.

Have you actually found that to be a useful thing to believe -- "I'm a success as long as I can get out of bed...?"

I'm always delighted to see how open and touching blog posts by the Keen.io team can be.

I wish more companies took to making their blogs more open to content such as this.

Are there other good examples of companies that take on this ethos?

Are there particular activities or strategies that make this kind of open writing more comfortable amongst a company?

This may be the most important lesson we can learn nowadays. Between demand for ever-higher test scores, and demand for ever-more-inoffensive worlds, and demand for ever-more perfect people, we forget that failure isn't game over.

After seeing more and more of these "we failed" pieces pop up here, I commend the authors for sharing something so intimate. However, these are starting to strike me as those "everyone gets a trophy" competitions where the goal is sharing the best failure stories and getting a reaffirming pat on the back for things going wrong. I'm of the supposed generation that is labeled with this "we're all winners regardless of what place we finish in the race" mentality, but I don't get it. This is where that stereotype comes from.

This is perfectly exemplified by the "if Keen busts...we'll move on" wording that is pervasive in this. Nevermind the amounts of time, effort and (other people's) money that went into building something, and the jobs and families that count on a paycheck. The whole "we'll just pat ourselves on the back and move on" way of doing business forgets that there are victims and potentially long-reaching impacts for every failure. It can't be that simple and easy to walk away, it really shouldn't be.

People fail, startups fail, etc. all the time. But it's starting to sound like a competition to see who failed the best the more of these I read. It just seems like attention-seeking behavior sometimes, or maybe just slick marketing perhaps to try and boost that falling revenue. Who knows. I mean, it made it to the top of HN, right? Probably got a few thousand eyeballs out of that at the very least for free.

On the other hand, posting about failure and turmoil for a going business concern can't be good for customer retention. If I were a competitor, I'd jump all over this opportunity to lure some of those lucrative clients away by leveraging the fear of investing their time, money and effort into a potentially problem-riddled organization that by-and-large accepts, even embraces, a high rate of failure. Large enterprises don't like hearing about these types of problems with their vendors as they are inherently quite risk averse. Ultimately, I fear that this company, and others that have done the same, will soon realize this but it'll too late to save themselves from a flight of customers. Hey, who knows, prove me wrong.

Anyway, just my opinion. I'm not trying to be negative, but just relaying a different perspective from someone who's been around the industry for some time.

In hard times, there's a balance of concern between totally uninvested and stressed out of one's mind. In circumstances like the ones described, most people tend toward the latter. As an employee, this would be very welcome and probably very helpful in making the most of the situation.

That said, it's crazy that they posted it for their customers to read. Hearing that my vendor has a "can fail" attitude isn't reassuring. I'd rather hear that my vendor is comprised of low-maintenance caffeine fueled super robots that keep their commitments with the stubbornness of a thousand donkeys. (I know they're probably not, but when choosing vendors, I'm usually working with limited info.)

So...cool memo, weird post, nice thoughts.

One problem with hearing that your vendor is comprised of low-maintenance caffeine fueled super robots that keep their commitments with the stubbornness of a thousand donkeys is knowing that your vendor probably has some slick liar salesmen giving you that line. What else do you not know then?

Exactly the problem. When you make failure unacceptable, people will stil fail anyway, they will just try their damndest to hide it. If you punish people for giving you bad news, they will simply stop giving it to you, even when bad things do happen, and they always do.

There is probably some truth there, but I think you are missing reality.

Next time you try to make a sale, express how reluctant you and your coworkers are to recommend the product to their friends.

It's not black and white like you think. I used to work as an outside sales rep. Experienced people know that shit breaks in real life. They care more about how you deal with failure.

I've actually heard rumors of companies purposefully fucking up little things with new customers in order to take the opportunity to demonstrate how good their customer service is when they fix the mistake. Because vendors are pretty equivalent when things go right, but they differentiate themselves by how they handle it when things go wrong, and that earns loyalty.

That example is over the top, but yes any salesman will tell you that a good sales pitch is more likely to win customers then a list of red flags.

Thank for that. I was reading all of these "great job!" comments and thinking to myself that I couldn't be the only one that saw it that way.

This can't be a winning move long-term when companies do this and embrace such wide-scale failure so effortlessly without any consideration for the repercussions of their actions.

Hi there - I wrote the piece and you pretty succinctly summed up some of my internal arguments for not sharing the story. I'll share some of my thoughts on those and why I ultimately decided to share anyway. While I knew some customers/prospects would appreciate and possibly admire the transparency, my main concern was that others might be deterred.

First, they might be deterred by the issues I mentioned in the post. None of the challenges I mentioned in the piece were special. We lost a customer. We had an outage (a year ago). We were stressed. Every API company and competitor, not to mention our customers, have had a similar story. Of course we made it through those challenges, or we wouldn't be telling this story. They made us stronger. Plus, we love it when prospects ask about uptime because it's something we take seriously and where we have a great track record :)

Second, they might be deterred at the idea of failure being ok. Perhaps the message in the piece is too subtle. It's not supposed to be that it's ok to be lazy and fail at stuff. It's about getting perspective and not letting your anxiety cripple you. I hoped what would come through in this piece is that we care very deeply about our work, so much so that sometimes we needed to be reminded that it's not life or death.

Finally, I'll share some of my thoughts on why it might be beneficial to share.

First, like I mentioned in the post, being a part of the tech community and contributing to it, sharing some of the lessons you've learned, is very rewarding. I've found that when you give, not only does it feel good, but the community gives back, often later on and in surprising ways you didn't expect. You reach like-minded customers, partners, candidates, investors, all kinds of things.

Second, as a data company, trust is incredibly important to our brand. Some might disagree, but I think sharing the more human sides of the company helps to expand that trust. This is how we have always operated the company, and I think it is a large part of why we not only have a lot of customers (and growing), but many fans. We like knowing our customers and we like them to know us too.

I think you fail to realize the implications of what you do when you go out and not only embrace but advertise your failures. It looks like attention-seeking behavior and it won't be good for your company.

I understand why you may think it is a good idea. Heck, even I considered it before. But it's not. What is the net benefit to your employees worrying about their next paycheck or your customers worrying about their data when you post something like this? Not much, if any. But it sure got you a whole lot of personal advertising for free.

> a potentially problem-riddled organization that by-and-large accepts, even embraces, a high rate of failure

It seems like a huge leap to go from having one slow month of growth to "problem-riddled" organization that "embraces a high rate of failure". That's not something I took away from the blog post.

Also, I've used Keen before. Their product and engineering is really great, and I've never had issues with the API itself, the dashboard widgets, reliability, quality, etc.

I'd certainly consider a "major loss" of your customer data, not just once mind you, and on top of that admitting to having an "unstable" product certainly very "problem riddled" for a data analytics company that people put their trust into. Those are MAJOR issues that should not happen if you really cared about your work and were't so ready to give up at a moment's notice as this reads.

I understand YOU may not have a problem taking a risk that the owner may just decide to "give themselves permission" to walk away at any time as if it were nothing, but do you work for a large enterprise looking to dedicate lots of money and effort into a platform like this? If I were, I'd definitely be heading to their competitors right now after reading something like this. If I were a competitor, I'd be marketing to this and headhunting their best talent using this to demonstrate how easily it could all fold up on them at any time.

There are many others, especially current customers and even employees, that would almost certainly interpret this company's blog post as very disconcerting at the very least. Mostly because of the ease with which the owner seems to be able to just give up, walk away and accept complete failure along with rationalizing their selling of a self-admitted "unstable" product and justifying the "major" loss of customer data by saying they "give themselves permission" for these things to happen, apparently quite regularly.

Using their own words, not mine, it seems to fit that "problem riddled" description quite well.

It's so nice to see some humanity out of the startup community every once in a while. It gets so old and, dare I say, fake, to see everyone making a big show of how they're killing it all the time. That's not real life. This is.

""Still, I appreciate this time to reflect when our confidence is shaken a bit. To be honest, we were probably overdue for it."

probably the best thing from a CEO i have ever read. That said, the bar's not terribly high--depending on the CEO, or their mood, or the circumstances, "all hands memos" are nearly always (in my experience) tirelessly optimistic propaganda with no regard for the data, or just the opposite, i.e., "sure we're doing great, but we'd be doing twice as good if you lazy bastards would stop screwing off!" This CEO actually had the courage to send to everyone, a snapshot of their thoughts at that moment. I doubt they teach this in MBA school.

I believe Michelle is one of the earliest employees, but she's not the CEO or a founder.

thanks for the correction--and looking at the Post again, nowhere does it say or suggest she's the CEO nor anything else about her job title. It was just my incorrect assumption based on the content of the memo

Amazingly beautiful people, all of them. Love the Keen team and truly hope they find whatever success they are seeking. <3

'You don't have to do this.' ~ So true, and so easy to forget

I have also struggled with the same problem in the past: I couldn't stop obsessing about my work. I worked like a maniac. I expected the team to do the same, and drove them to the edge. We burned out after a while. At that point, I realized that startups are probably not for me. While I can work like a maniac, I don't like the effect it has on my well being. At that point I decided, I would rather go for small businesses, where the stress level is much lower and things are chill. The difference between a startup and a small business is outlined rather well in this Medium post. https://medium.com/swlh/you-think-you-re-a-startup-but-you-r...

I have to disagree with the formulation of your advice. I totally agree that you should give yourself permission to fail, but I think it's important that this is only in the short term. In the long term, you can never give up (this does not mean that you shouldn't be flexible and pivot). As PG says, "If you can just avoid dying, you get rich." (http://paulgraham.com/die.html)

Last month my startup closed our B round, led by Intel. While the change in pressure is a much smaller magnitude than what you're dealing with, for us the second-guessing is definitely stronger now. We analyze what we do more and question a lot of the things we spend time on. I knew there'd be more pressure, but I wasn't expecting such a sweeping wave.

I think the naming of things comes in to play here a little bit.

I think this piece would not have attracted the negativity it has here if it were entitled something a bit different, and I think, truer to the intent: Permission to be Human. Edited to add: I do very much appreciate that you wrote this and made it public. I think there's an empathy in your voice that's sorely lacking in the industry.

I was one of those affected by the mentioned data loss and inconsistency issues. Even though I kept backups, I was fairly annoyed at the time, but now I'm glad to see they moved past it and things are stable.

Sites seems down. Mirror?


We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10815442 and marked it off-topic.

Thank you! HN is not the same scary place it was two years ago. I'm impressed!

> What she is really saying is that she has permission to fail the customers who trusted her.

No she really isn't.

> She is unilaterally demanding the right to betray that trust in order to have both the benefits of success, and also the easy lifestyle of someone who is just a worker bee.

This is baseless. She is giving herself permission to not be wracked with guilt, beat herself up about it endlessly, and put herself through self-imposed torture if she fails. It makes sense not to snowball over and compound your failures by piling on. Nobody is advocating screwing customers over by default.

> This idea that everyone deserves an easy lifestyle, regardless of their position, is one that needs to die.

Kind of extreme?

> Marissa Mayer and her ultra short maternity leaves gets it. This lady does not.


Besides, our system of corporate loans and bankruptcy works so well to encourage innovation precisely because it minimizes the personal cost of failure. If you weren't allowed to fail, nobody would take risks.

No one is saying she should compound her failures. I'm saying she should either be willing to do what it takes to fix them or she should step aside for someone who is willing.

The idea of screwing customers "by default" is exactly what she advocates doing. By default services will break and she is giving herself permission to leave them broken.

I think I understand what you're saying, but I think you're drawing the wrong conclusion here. You just stated that services break by default. I think that's what the author is stating, too. Services break. People make mistakes. Failures happen. By accepting screw-ups we arm ourselves with a mindset that's focused on moving forward, instead of beating ourselves up over what's already occurred.

I took away something completely different. The OP gives herself permission to fail not because she doesn't want to put in the effort, or has any less desire to succeed.

The point is she doesn't want to be driven by fear. Fear is a powerful motivator but not necessarily a constructive one. Some people may find they lack drive without the fear of failure, but to me it seems the OP feels it more of a drag. Without the burden of fear she may feel more clarity and actually make better decisions, e.g. decisions that carry more personal risk but are better for the company/customers.

So the appearance of dedication and the platitudes mouthed are more important than the actual results?

Saying something about "permission to fail" and then recovering & excelling < claiming repeatedly you're committed and putting in 100 hours a week that don't solve the problem effectively?

The author isn't remotely coming up with some sort of "work smarter not harder" plan, or some way to get actual results without large amounts of work. She's giving "permission to fail" instead of "push through the issues".

I'm a keen.io customer, and I don't feel betrayed. YMMV.

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