Fail cheap

Recently, I caught up with a friend who I hadn’t talked to in about a year.  He was telling me how he wanted to leave his part-time job so he could go to film school and become a video editor.  I asked if he’d ever done any editing before, and he said, “No, but I think it’d be a lot of fun.  I would love to edit trailers for big Hollywood movies.”

Kill me now.

He wanted to go to film school — a.k.a. guaranteed six-figure debt and high chance of failure ahead — with ZERO hands-on experience in anything related to film.  Unbelievable.

I see this all the time.  People want to get their MBA because they love the idea of being a CEO.  Or they want to write a book because they love the idea of calling themselves an author.  Or they want to buy a patent because they love the idea of their product being on a shelf in Walmart.

Why in the world are people willing to dish out thousands of dollars when they could have quickly discovered, for free, that it wouldn’t work out?

You want to be a film editor?  Try making a basic slideshow of family pictures on your computer.

You want to be a CEO?  Shadow a first-time entrepreneur and see what their daily routine is like.

You want to be an author?  Write a successful blog first.

You want to be an inventor?  Sell one — just one — unit of your product on ebay.

You want to stop falling in love with your half-baked ideas?  Fail cheap.  You’ll build momentum that way.

By Charlie Hoehn

19 comments on “Fail cheap

  1. I recently worked with a first-time author and president of a successful financial institution that insisted on buying $20k in advertising on CNBC. Hardly any books were sold.

  2. Advertising is a completely different discussion. It’s been ineffective for years now.

    The problem with this overarching mindset is that it assumes if you throw enough money at something, it will produce the results you want. And agencies are more than happy to accept your check.

  3. @Don
    That sounds exactly like a first-time author (and president of a successful financial institution) that I know who wanted to an all-out ‘social media marketing’ campaign for his upcoming book. I think it’ll have a similar outcome to your guy’s.

    I’m so glad you wrote this timely post. You’ve probably seen those recent ‘exposes’ on how a masters degree can be a major financial and career blunder (NYTimes), and yet stats show that young people are flocking back to school more than ever.

    It makes me really, really POed that, instead of thinking for themselves or buckling down and doing the hard work (eg. of starting a blog that might actually suck, or trying to edit a video and then failing), people think they can just throw money at the gaping holes in their lives.

    The biggest irony is that these same people – who in one instance are willing to toss $100,000 at that gaping hole – are the ones who complain about ‘free work.’

    ‘Free work’ = valuable, relationship-building apprenticeships in fields that YOU target, doing a job that YOU engineer.

    Somehow, it’s a bad deal to put in a few month’s work of free work (a few thousand $$’s worth of earnings) in exchange for experience and connections that can totally change your career, but it’s a good idea to write a $100,000 check to a film school in exchange for a piece of paper and a few years of your life where you don’t have to think about the hard stuff?

    So foolish, and sad, and lemming-esque (or whatever is a good word for ‘opposite of entrepreneurial’).


  4. I think the key point is that people “love the idea of being” someone. The “doing” part is much more difficult. Everyone wants to “be” rich, famous and successful, but not many want to “do” all the hard work and intermediate steps to get there.

    Going to school, even though expensive, is still the easy way for many people. They don’t have to take any risks that way and many people are along the way to hold their hands.

    I agree with your advice, on taking small first steps towards your goals. But sadly, many people don’t feel those first steps are worthwhile. Everyone thinks they are rockstars, they don’t want to edit a family movie, they just want to jump to a Hollywood block buster.

  5. People dish out the money for expensive certifications because they don’t have confidence in their own abilities, and want to postpone what they fear is the dreadful truth: That they aren’t good enough to succeed at their chosen field.

    To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, they can’t handle the truth.

  6. I said the same thing about law school. I can’t imagine how many people each year enter law school without any real understanding of what the day to day of a lawyer is. Instead, they are infatuated with the idea of being a lawyer and the salary.

    It’s crazy to think people put themselves in that much debt to put themselves on a set career path without actually being inspired to pursue the profession.

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  8. Did you give your friend this advice? Or direct him to this blog to let him know your thoughts? Just curious.

    Sometimes people just don’t know the steps they need to take and a friend’s advice is all they need to guide them.

  9. I called my friend an idiot to their face, and proceeded to rant about what they should do instead. Although it may be hard to believe, my real-life conversations rarely end with me saying, “You should really check out my blog.” :)

  10. I tried a music marketing internship for about 2 months, starting this past January, trying to give myself an opportunity to flesh out some of your ideas, Seth’s, etc. that I’ve been reading. It was low key, didn’t cost me anything, and gave me a direct opportunity to really see how well (or not so well) some of these new marketing strategies can be applied within an actual firm. After the two months, I realized that while the stuff I was doing was cool, it didn’t really give me that spark of interest that kinda grabs you by the balls. I’ve tried lots and lots of different things in school and out, and I’ve realized that only actually practicing and making music gives me that insatiable feeling.

    Whatever. The point is, I could walk away knowing I had only invested the time and energy at my own volition, and had learned some great stuff about marketing and my own interests.

    So you are absolutely right, sir. Great post.

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  12. I think what you’re running into is the intersection between what people want their identities to be, and what they actually want to do. Sometimes that lines up, often it contradicts.

  13. I (sometimes) teach programming at a college, and very often get the feeling that if students created their own startup and worked on it for 2 years, they would learn much more than a college ed, and may even have a viable business after those 2 years.

    If a person is not entrepreneurial they can even create their own micro-businesses like making iPhone apps, etc.

    Would like to know your thoughts…

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  15. Charlie,

    I just stumbled on your blog after searching “fail fast, fail cheap” in google.

    I enjoyed your insights. I was having a similar conversation with a friend who wanted to go back to school for writing. WRITING?! And I told her she should just start writing then, and to create a project for herself.

    I wanted to give her a plan, which is what brought me to your blog. I started thinking about how my friends and I have learned quickly and it came out something like… 1. Have a project to complete 2. Get advisers. 3. Find theoretical reading 4. Create a hands-on activity where you can experiment 5. surround yourself with people interested in the same subject.

    I’m curious, what methods have you found useful for convincing people to NOT go back to school?


    • The one and only thing I’ve found to work is to lead by example. Trying to convince them with arguments is mostly just a waste of breath.

      If they get it, they get it. If they don’t, there’s not much you can do to change their mind.

  16. Fail cheap. It’s great advice. I agree with it. The only downside, well I guess not really, is that people just think you’re bumming. But I guess that’s where you advice you gave in your tedx talk comes in: “Don’t expect people to understand…”

    Good Stuff.

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