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If FailCamp succeeds, is it still FailCamp?

27 Jul 2008
by Alex Hillman

The meta/double negative jokes ran wild yesterday, when Philadelphia became home of the first successful FailCamp (again, with the irony).

Joining a wonderfully diverse Philly contingent were some of my best friends from around the world, including Tony Bacigalupo of New Work City in NY, as well as co-organizers Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs (in from Vienna via DC).

And for those of you in Philly and those who planned on coming from afar, but didn’t, consider yourself a successful participant of a meta-fail for failing to attend failcamp. There were a lot of you, so you weren’t alone.

When Amy and I put ourselves on the hook for this event, Amy promised that I wasn’t going to have to do much besides agree to host it at IndyHall. Honestly, she kept her promise. This event was the least work I’ve ever done to pull off a successful event, and that’s not to say that Amy did more work than I did. The fact of the matter is, the beauty of the BarCamp model meant that we could totally wing it and let the participants drive the event.

The Format

Amy and I discussed briefly the night before (yes, you read that right) a loose format for FailCamp. We started with that, and let the day take us for a ride. Since all of the participants seemed to consider the event a success, we wanted to share it for future FailCamps to spin off.

Step 1: Invite everybody. NO discrimination of business, personal, or any other kind of fail. Everyone has made mistakes, so don’t be exclusive. If your RSVP blows up, just find a bigger space. That was our plan, anyway. We had almost 40 people RSVP on upcoming, and ended up having about 60-70% of that show up over the course of the day. I think that’s a reasonable expectation from your RSVP list, so you can use that for basing expectations on. As I mentioned before, many people failed to comply with their RSVP, so account for that, but don’t hold it against them.

Step 2: Set the tone, and lay down the one and only rule Which is, “this is about your failure”. No finger pointing, no blame. We suggested, but never got to execute, on a whistle-blowing technique where if someone was finger-pointing, you shout “FAIL” as loud as you can to interrupt them. It might not be necessary, but it got the room to chuckle.**

Step 3: Brainstorm/Icebreaker, or “Lend me your fail” We kicked things off by brainstorming categories within which fail tends to occur. In a matter of minutes, we kicked off with:

  • Personal
  • Business
  • Financial
  • Romantic
  • Technical
  • Spiritual
  • Health/Physical
  • Education

There were some other failure categories, such as Military and Government, but we felt they were going to be difficult for people to apply to their OWN fails.

From these categories, we asked people to jot down one failure from one category, identify the category as well as the lesson that was learned. We asked people to keep their failures anonymous, to attempt to elicit some of the more emotionally jarring ones. After collecting the anonymous fail-slips, Amy and I read through them, poetry-slam style. After each one, we opened up the room for some discussion around them. Something pretty cool happened: nearly every failure we read was openly admitted to, and discussed with the group. Lessons were learned. Laughs were shared. It was a really positive direction to point the day, and carried us up until lunchtime.

Step 4: Failcamp becomes HelpCamp, or Entreprenur’s Anonymous Some group feedback pre-lunch pointed us in a new direction after lunch. Two specific pieces of feedback, from Christine Cavalier and Blake Jennelle, significantly shaped the rest of our day. Blake pointed out that while he was learning a great deal, he hoped that the takeaway at the end of the day would be uplifting and positive. That brought us back to Christine pointing out how the room got very animated while “coaching” her through some issues with the completion of a novel she’d been writing.

We took that feedback and, on the fly, spun out a new format to try. We set a 10 minute timer and asked people to share a problem/failure they were experiencing at this current period of time, and then within the same 10 minute window, gave the room an opportunity to speed-coach.

This was intensely awesome, as the problems approached ran the gamut of the categories listed above. Furthermore, EVERYONE’s problem that was brought up was coached thoroughly and by a room full of high quality people who had great diversity in their experiences. I really believe that everyone who had an opportunity to share, got to take something away as well. And those who didn’t share still got to learn a great deal by hearing their issues in other contexts. It was EXTREMELY cathartic and holistic.

This went on for another 3 hours or so (all of which zoomed by), at the end of which we were excited, exhausted, and ready for celebration of a day of successful failure, which landed us at our local haunt, National Mechanics.

Overall, the response from the participants as well as those who joined us on our uStream channel, was overwhelmingly positive. We look forward to continuing the “Entreprenur’s Anonymous” event with the help of PhillyPreneurs, so stay tuned for that.

And of course, our sincerest hope is that some other groups can benefit from what we learned during our FailCamp, and help your local scene benefit from your own FailCamp.

Special thanks to everyone who came out, the event would have been NOTHING without you! For me personally, events like this are a great reminder of how brilliant many of my peers are, and how lucky I am to be surrounded by them in order to be able to pull off an event like this.

Viva la Failure!

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.