Why Failing Fast is Bad Advice

I’m not a fan of the advice to “fail fast.” And not just because people often throw it out like it’s this sage advice — it’s not that sage — we’ll go into that later. I dislike it because it’s truly bad advice that doesn’t allow for context. The traditional interpretation of “fail fast” is to quickly quit any business activities or hires where outcomes don’t match expectations.

The Flaws of “Fail Fast”

Now, I ask you, in which situation have your expectations 100 percent matched reality? It’s extremely rare. It’s far more common for expectations to go unfulfilled. So, what the fail fast method is really saying is “quickly quit any business activities where outcomes don’t match consequential expectations.”

Here’s where you encounter the first problem with the advice to fail fast: How do you know whether an issue is consequential or whether you should just let it go?

Your Gut is a Terrible Decision-Maker

Often, we’re told to follow our gut. Unfortunately, our gut is terrible at making decisions. For example, my gut tells me I’ll enjoy that order of “spicy jalapeno poppers” until later, when my gut tells me that was an awful decision.

Basically, your gut is wired to rely on shortcuts or biases, your current emotional state (which may or may not be related to the issue at hand), and over-confidence—all of which are often wrong. So, put another way, failing fast might mean relying on your gut to make a hasty decision based on too little data and too much emotion, that you’ll probably regret later. There is no room in this model for complexity, long implementation timelines, or thinking through your expectations so you don’t make a bad decision.

When Failing Fast Backfires

There are plenty of situations where failing fast is a bad idea. My marriage is an example. Had my wife failed fast, she would never have married me. There would not have been enough time to develop our relationship. Amazon is another example. Had they followed the “fail fast” model, they would have closed long before they turned a profit – which happened 20 years after opening their doors.

But the best example I’ve seen is the short-form, video-sharing social media platform, Vine. At its peak, Vine had over 200 million active users. Approximately 41 percent of American teens were using the app. But, in October 2016, Twitter discontinued the app because they were struggling to monetize the platform.

In September 2016, Bytedance launched TikTok in China, which does essentially the same thing Vine did. In 2018, it came to the U.S., and by 2020, it hit over 100 million active monthly users. In 2024, TikTok’s revenue is estimated to reach US$17.2 billion despite having fewer active users in the U.S. than Vine at its peak.

The Fail Fast Fallacy

At its core, fail fast—particularly in business—is a numbers game. The goal is to plow through as many “bad” ideas as possible to find the gold nugget. But, unless you have the right criteria to grade your efforts and the right expectations by which to weigh your criteria, you end up bailing “three feet from gold.”

That’s another major problem with fail-fast advice. It doesn’t coach you through understanding your situation or the outcomes you really need. So, it’s lacking the context necessary to weigh your results. This means that often, companies don’t dedicate enough time to develop effective strategies, let alone get those strategies to work.

And it’s all because we’re focused too much on our gut, and using data to justify emotionally-driven decisions; and not enough time on understanding our expectations, the current situation, and the ideal outcome. Twitter lost billions of dollars because they “failed fast” with Vine.

The Value of Context and Long-Term Thinking

I wonder whether we realize how often this occurs. In the real world, complex, long-term strategies take time to figure out, implement, and generate results. Capital-intensive ventures take time to generate ROI. It takes time and deep empathy to gain the trust of new markets.

But, when expectations (real or otherwise) don’t match, “fail fast” would have you believe you should pivot, even though reality might be telling you something very different – that you haven’t allowed enough time for the strategy to work. Instead of “failing fast,” pause and reflect on the realism of your expectations and the time you’ve allocated for your strategies to work. When you have realistic strategies and you’ve given your plans enough time to work, then pivot. But, when your expectations are unrealistic, change them.

It’s Always A Marathon

Building a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t let your emotions coerce you to make bad decisions you’ll regret later. Don’t be tricked by the quick-fix mentality of “fail fast.” Focus on long-term goals, make strategic decisions based on data, and don’t be afraid of delayed gratification.

Trust me, the Jalapeno poppers aren’t worth it.

Contributed to EO by Zac Stucki, a growth strategist who specializes in helping B2C health/wellness technology companies acquire and retain their ideal users through deep customer insights. As the co-founder of Ignition Point Strategies, he guides companies in unearthing the often-overlooked functional, emotional, and social dimensions that shape user behavior — allowing them to align product roadmaps, marketing strategies, and the full customer experience around delivering true value. The result? Reduced churn, higher lifetime value, and a competitive edge, all by becoming an authority on user needs. Zac, a sought-after speaker and workshop facilitator, has also shared his thought leadership on How To Take the Guesswork Out of Scaling.

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