MENU
Learning from mistakes

“Fuck-Up Nights”: When companies get it wrong

© Stefanie Loos

6 November 2017

There are lots of success stories. But not many people are prepared to talk about their failures - after all, to do so involves a certain amount of courage. At the Fuck-Up Nights, failed company founders come on stage and inspire others with their honest tales of getting it wrong. But if you want to hear them in Berlin, you’ll have to wait in line. #explore was there - a visit to the start-up scene in the nation’s capital.

Even an hour before the scheduled start, it’s clear that the rows of seats that have been put out are not going to be enough. While some of the people who have already made it into the venue are looking around for empty beer crates to use as makeshift stools, some are still queuing outside in the hope of at least finding standing room. The really lucky ones are on the guest list. The crush is so enormous that not everyone can be admitted.

The audience is young: the estimated average age is in the mid-30s. The uniform of the guests consists of jeans, trainers and shirtsleeves; most of them are drinking from bottles of beer or organic lemonade. The babble of voices is loud, as is the music of Deichkind blaring out of the speakers. The stage is currently shrouded in darkness; the spotlights are poised to come on. And yet, this erstwhile factory space in a rear courtyard in the heart of Berlin, where digital experts normally gather to work on innovative ideas, is not on this occasion hosting musicians but instead three entrepreneurs whose firms have gone belly-up. It's Tuesday night, it's Fuck-Up Night.

The message of the Fuck-Up Night is set out in stark terms by organiser Patrick Wagner: “Let’s not talk about best cases but instead about problems - with friends in a small group. Listen and learn, get involved in the discussion.” Patrick Wagner knows what he’s talking about: after all, he drove his own firm into the ground. A few years ago, he and his record company, Louisvillle Records, went bust. Together with his colleague Ralf Kemmer, Professor of Campaigns and Communications Planning at the Design Akademie Berlin, he wants to use this series of events to “excise the stigma associated with failure”. This is because people who have the confidence to try out something new also fail; it’s the nature of the beast.

This is proved beyond any doubt by the evening’s first speaker: Daniel Spurman. At just 19, he is the youngest speaker ever to stand on the stage at any of the 21 Fuck-Up Nights thus far held in Berlin. At a time when other people of his age were still studying for their school-leaving exams, waiting to go to university or halfway through a training course, Daniel Spurman had already founded his third company. The launch of his first firm was not all that long ago: In April 2016, Daniel discovered a funny video on Facebook. In it, people were jumping from a tower onto a giant air mattress in a lake, thereby launching other people from the mattress high into the air. A quick online research session showed that there was nothing comparable in Germany. Daniel was inspired: “I’m going to do that!”

He didn't have much time: the start of the summer season was only a few weeks away. He looked for and found a lake, reached an agreement with the tenant, organised a 70-kilogramme mattress, helmets, business registration and a cheap tower, recruited two staff members via a small ads portal and quickly trained as a lifeguard. Just before the launch, the first of his staff quit because of a sudden “allergy to lakes”. Daniel's friends jumped in without further ado to put together the mattress and the tower. But, by that evening, Daniel was so exhausted that he went to sleep on his own on the beach. As if by some miracle, Daniel’s start-up, “Jump2fly”, opened on time. Since the second member of staff had also quit in the meantime, Daniel himself had to repeatedly jump from the tower to bounce the paying guests on the XXL mattress into the lake.

Business was good – so Daniel went on holiday for a few days shortly after the launch of his firm and handed over the job to a friend. While Daniel was recovering on the island of Crete from the stress of launching his firm, the mattress on the Plötzensee in Berlin burst and, with it, the dream of having his own company. But nor did the weeks following its collapse allow Daniel any respite: “I went down with anxiety and depression. My mother advised me to see the funny side of the whole thing.” So, Daniel did laugh “a bit” and decided to start all over again - with a better business plan, better preparation and a professional partner at his side. Today, just a year later, Daniel Spurman is successfully running an online shop.

The audience rewards this tale of courage, openness and entrepreneurial spirit with applause. “Daniel did everything wrong that you could possibly do wrong,” says Patrick Wagner of the young founder. The audience laughs and claps once more. Daniel's story hits a nerve - just like the Fuck-Up Nights themselves. The original idea for them came from Mexico. From there, this still-young series of events has taken the world by storm. The first series took place in 2012; there are now Fuck-Up Nights in over 250 cities in 80 countries all over the world. The creators are not interested in schadenfreude - quite the reverse. They want to establish a new culture of failure, in which you fall down, get up again and carry on. As Daniel puts it: “It was the biggest mistake of my life. But it was just a brilliant time.”

FAIL BETTER

After their launch in Mexico in 2012, entrepreneurs swap stories about their biggest professional failures at Fuck-Up Nights in over 250 cities in 80 countries all over the world. In Germany, too, a whole raft of cities has got involved in the process of leaving information on their websites or Facebook pages concerning the location and date of the next Fuck-Up Night.

You can get an overview of upcoming Fuck-Up Nights anywhere in the world here