‘Fail fast’ has gone from an intriguing idea to mainstream business orthodoxy in just a few short years. Jihee Junn went along to the pricey business event dedicated entirely to ‘falling forward’.
It was about 9am by the time I arrived and instantly my senses were overloaded. One moment I’m wading through rush hour traffic making small talk with my Uber driver, the next I’m in a huge dark room full of hundreds of strangers, a pair of BMWs, and a massive stage engulfed with artificial smoke. From above, dozens of neon lights illuminated the room with a lime green hue – at one point they even started ‘dancing’, bobbing up and down in unison to ‘Viva La Vida’ and ‘Bad Romance’.
It was dramatic, it was theatrical, and it was intense. It was also a lot for nine in the morning – I’d only just had my first cup of coffee and the cacophonous excess of it all kind of made me want to throw it back up. But I was told inspiration awaited me in this loud scary room, so I ventured inside until I found a free VIP seat. ‘Out of Time’ by A Star Is Born‘s Bradley Cooper was blaring over the speakers.
There were hundreds in attendance at Auckland’s SkyCity Convention Centre for the fourth edition of business speaker series, Unfiltered Live. It’s the brainchild of online education platform Unfiltered and its very young, very rich CEO Jake Millar. This year, the theme was all about how to Fall Forward and featured 12 speakers taking the stage for just 20 minutes each. Last year, the theme was all about How To Win In Business. Fast, an occasion famously topped off by an extravagant Gatsby-themed after party held at the former Dotcom mansion.
Millar, who spent most of his time playing DJ behind the sound desk this year, welcomed his guests with a few words in the event booklet, an item bizarrely punctuated with motivational catchphrases like YOU FU%KING NAILED IT! and YOU SAVED MY F%CKING ASS.
“Today will be a day focussed on mistakes, screw-ups [and] challenges,” wrote Millar. “It will be fast. It will be intense. It will be totally Unfiltered.
“Are you ready to be inspired?”
As I looked around the room, a hierarchy of seating arrangements quickly became apparent. At the very back were the cheap seats for the regular business folks – these would’ve cost at least $395 each. At the very front were the VVIP seats: three rows of sofas with a concierge service, reserved for its most exclusive guests and valued at just under $1,600.
Wedged in between the two was the VIP area, sectioned off from the cheap seats with a bit of velvet rope. Each guest had a branded tote bag waiting for them which included some stationery, snacks, two free magazines, a copy of How to get to the top of Google Search, and two boxes of Dr Hisham’s Teeth Serum valued at $29.95.
As I distractedly rummaged through my haphazard bag of goodies, a timer suddenly appeared on screen, counting down the seconds to the start of the show. The lighting became more erratic and the music became more intense, as ‘Heart of Courage’ by Two Steps From Hell blasted across the room (aka that music that gets played in almost every dramatic movie/TV/sporting trailer known to man). It’s also the opening theme song to Nathan for You, the American comedy series about a young entrepreneur who uses his business skills to consult struggling companies with outlandish advice.
When the clock hit zero, the room went dark, and out walked Chris Heaslip, co-founder and now former CEO of Pushpay, one of New Zealand’s fastest growing startups. There was no introduction, no welcoming statement, and no time to waste as Heaslip’s 20 minutes were already underway. He spoke about his childhood, his dream of becoming an accountant at seven-years-old (yikes), and how reading Rich Dad Poor Dad changed his life.
He then talked about his failures, of which he’s had many, claiming to have been at the helm of more than 15 failed businesses before finally hitting the entrepreneurial jackpot. He also talked about how in 2013, Pushpay ran out of money until investor Peter Huljich – whose “controversial activities” have been in the news again lately – came to the rescue with some much-needed coin.
“In New Zealand we love to think about, highlight and honour incredible inventors. For instance, look at the incredible faces I’ve put up here,” said Heaslip, pointing to a visual that told you everything you needed to know about why Pushpay still has an all-male board.
“But the people who we should be honouring as a country are not just the people who start stuff, but people who grow stuff and make it successful: Graham Hart, Rod Drury, Michael Hill, the Mowbrays, Sam Morgan, Peter Huljich, and Stephen Tindall” (one of the Mowbrays is a woman, so there’s that).
“I don’t think we have a problem with failure. But do we, as a country, have a problem with success?”
Clearly, success isn’t the only thing New Zealand has a problem with, but his point was made, and the talk was over. Applause rippled through the room as Dominic Bowden, doyen of reality TV hosting gigs, finally welcomed the audience to Unfiltered Live. But Bowden wasn’t the one steering the ship this time round: that privilege went to 90 Seconds’ CEO Tim Norton who, when introduced by Bowden, literally bolted out from one of the parked BMWs and ran up on stage in one dramatic swoop (“He’s been sitting in the car for the last 30 minutes!” Bowden exclaimed).
After Norton had his own 20-minute spiel about failure (including the $750,000 of debt he had at one point in his career), it was Allbirds founder Tim Brown’s turn to take the stage. The former All White-turned-sustainable shoe entrepreneur’s dry, subdued sense of Kiwi humour turned out to be a welcome breath of fresh air to proceedings, tempering some of the overexcited hype around discussions of failure.
“In the States, the celebration of failure has reached epic proportions, almost to the point of being a little bit silly,” he said. “Let’s just make sure we don’t go through today and think the lesson from all these stories is that you’re supposed to go out and make mistakes.”
“You’re not meant to do that, you’re meant to get it right the first time! But often you don’t, which is why mistakes can be really helpful.”
After Brown came Peter Gordon: chef, restaurateur, and winner of the Supreme award at the Kea World Class Awards the night before. After Gordon came Dr Elizabeth Iorns, co-founder of Science Exchange, a platform that allows scientists to outsource their research to scientific institutions.
“From being an academic scientist to going to Silicon Valley, it was quite a steep learning curve,” said Iorns.. “I’d always get told off for not being confident enough, not precise enough with my language… I was encouraged to be bolder in my messaging to Silicon Valley investors, which was great, but it also resulted in our actual user audience (scientists) being alienated.”
Next up was former Saatchi & Saatchi boss-turned-leadership coach Kevin Roberts’ turn. No doubt well versed in this kind of presentation, Roberts’ slides were full of pithy catchphrases: “Work harder, work smarter. If you work longer you’re an idiot”, “Fail fast, learn fast, fix fast”, and “Managers get things done, leaders make things happen”. My personal favourite was the somewhat dubious advice to either “be obsessed or be average. Don’t you worry about work-life balance. It’s a crock – there isn’t any!”
Despite choosing to ignore his most public failure which forced him to resign from the top job at Saatchi & Saatchi, he did talk about his most recent stint with failure investing in the now defunct Cric HQ.
“I came into it two years in as chairman… two years later, we went broke. We had to take it into voluntary receivership. Another half million dollars down the drain – just success building on success here!” Roberts exclaimed sarcastically, who seemed to pin Cric HQ’s downfall primarily on its “charismatic founder” who had “a compliant and devoted finance group”, had failed to invest in “outstanding managers who get things done”, and had failed to stay grounded (“Don’t start believing your own hype!”).
After Roberts came the Americans: yoghurt entrepreneur Gary Hirschberg, co-founder and ‘chief organic optimist’ at Stonyfield Farm, as well as former NASA chief Dan Goldin. Later in the afternoon, MasterClass CEO David Rogier would also take the stage, whose company – also an online education platform like Unfiltered – recruits celebrities to be its instructors.
After breaking for lunch, we reconvened for a panel on the impossibly vague topic of “High-Stakes Leadership”, chaired by none other than TV titan Julie Christie. It’s a shame Christie didn’t get a chance to speak on failure herself, nor panelists like Kono CEO Rachel Taulelei whose experiences leading a Māori business would’ve surely had something more to say than some of the day’s more US-centric speakers.
In fact, it’s notable that out of the main speakers, only one happened to be a woman of colour: Shandre Kushor from Crimson Education. Even then, this only happened by accident – she was stepping in for her co-founder Jamie Beaton who was originally scheduled to do the talk. It’s also notable that Kushor seemed to be the only one to touch on topics such as the role that cultural bias plays when it comes to making business decisions. Perhaps Beaton would’ve touched on these same topics had he been there, but it’s hard to say.
By the end of Kushor’s talk it was 3pm: I’d been stuck inside for more than six hours, with at least three more hours, five more speakers, and one more panel left to go. Maybe it was my millennial attention span, maybe it was the five cups of coffee I drank, but I was tired, restless, and mentally exhausted. I decided it was time to go home.
When I think back at Unfiltered Live, I think of the drama, the music, the neon lights, and the tote bag full of random corporate tat. What I don’t remember is a lot of what was said on stage. Part of that probably comes down to listener fatigue, but it also strikes at the core of something else.
When you’re talking to an audience of hundreds, your aim is to try and reach as many people as possible. You want it to be interesting, engaging, inspiring even, but it’s hard when you only have 20 minutes and what you want to say is messier and more complicated than what an average audience could understand. So you pick whatever is the most universal, and try and condense it into tidy phrases: ‘Trust Your Gut’, ‘Be Brave’, ‘Try And Try Again’. Sometimes it can feel inspiring, but other times it can feel so vague as to virtually mean nothing at all.
The event’s website promises attendees will walk away with “over 30 powerful insights, and with the inspiration to relentlessly chase [their] dreams, no matter what challenges [they] face.” But inspiration doesn’t build businesses, and neither do well-meaning cliches. The whole time I was sitting in that auditorium, I couldn’t help but think how the whole thing just felt like one long disjointed TED talk. I kept thinking about how it had the same tendencies as TED to oversimplify its subjects, lionise its speakers, and charge its attendees exorbitant ticket prices. Messy topics are presented in neatly packaged boxes with a feel-good bow to tie it all up. For every failure, there’s always a fix, even when that fix is just pure dumb luck.
That’s not to say an event like this doesn’t have its merits. Inspiration doesn’t build businesses, but it can build people, especially young people like the high schoolers in the audience scribbling furiously in their notebooks. And there were genuinely good moments from the speakers too, which might be all you need, really – just a few powerful insights to make it all worthwhile.
But as the country’s “#1 business event”, don’t we deserve more? More substance, more nuance, more time, and more speakers with culturally diverse perspectives? For all we know, it could’ve made all the difference.