The race to be a start-up nation

A survey reveals that better innovation may lie in how well each country replaces a cultural taboo against failure in business with encouraging faith in finding the best ideas.

AP Photo
People attend meetings at the world's biggest start-up incubator, Station F, in Paris, Jan. 31. For a glimpse at President Emmanuel Macron's vision for the new French economy, look no farther than Station F. Entrepreneurs don virtual reality goggles and share ideas with business angels in this old Paris train station-turned-start­up incubator.

 One way to gauge the world’s pace of innovation is to measure how many people fear failure in business. In a just-released survey of 44 countries by Amway, about half of 50,000 people interviewed said they would be willing to risk failure if they were to start a business.

Where do so many people get so much confidence in even thinking about being an entrepreneur?

One answer may lie in another of the survey’s findings. Over half said they are capable of developing new business ideas.

In other words, risking failure in a start-up may rely on a person’s faith in eventually finding the right idea for success. Failure is not personal; it is merely a necessary eye-opener on where to better place one’s hopes and resources. The arc of innovation may be long. But it bends toward those who learn from blunders rather than fear them.

That’s a hard lesson in countries with cultural taboos against business failures. The potential for shame can discourage an entrepreneur. Breaking that taboo requires a big cultural shift. One place where that is now happening is Europe. Its leaders wonder why the Continent has failed to produce its own versions of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google (or the Chinese equivalents).

In the Amway survey, only 19 percent of Germans said they were willing to risk failure in starting a business. In Britain, it is 33 percent. For France, 36 percent.

By comparison, the figure in the United States is 74 percent. And for China it is 86 percent. In those countries, a high tolerance for uncertainty in starting a business allows for failure. The reward is more innovation and more economic growth.

To change Europe’s culture, French President Emmanuel Macron is not only pushing reforms in his own country, such as cutting red tape and taxes, but within the European Union. He wants “breakthrough innovation” that relies on “failure-tolerant” policies toward business.

One example of this culture shift, as reported by the BBC, are weekly meetings of young techies in Berlin. They gather to learn from each other’s mistakes. The meetings, called “Failure Nights,” are part of a worldwide movement to challenge each country’s peculiar fears of failure. A similar movement is an enterprise called Startupbootcamp. It began in the Netherlands and helps people find resources for new high-tech ventures.

This rising celebration of business failures is even being measured. The Failure Institute, based in Mexico, issued a report last year on “failure trends” around the world. The report does more than simply show where firms are closing. It also makes a point of explaining why.

And that is just the kind of discovery for good ideas that can turn fear into hope for the world’s would-be entrepreneurs.

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