When Failure Is A 4-Letter Word : Rough Translation On today's episode, entrepreneurs around the world are trying to redefine how their societies perceive failure, by doing the scariest thing possible: standing up in public and admitting their mistakes.

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When Failure Is A 4-Letter Word

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When he was a kid growing up in Chiapas, Mexico, Pepe Villatoro was kind of in awe of his dad.

PEPE VILLATORO: He could sell you rocks.


WARNER: Pepe remembers, even as early as 8 years old, he would spend his school vacations sitting in the backseat of his dad's car, driving around the bumpy back roads of Chiapas selling stuff.

VILLATORO: And I was super shy. I am the joke in my family. They say that, until I was 18 years old, I didn't talk, which is kind of true.

WARNER: (Laughter).

VILLATORO: And my dad used to tell me - you know, go ahead and sell this stuff. And I was like, what do you mean - like, just go out?

WARNER: What were you selling?

VILLATORO: Well (laughter), my dad sold everything from tomatoes to motorcycles to milk, etc. (Laughter) It's a very, very, very long list.

WARNER: And on these drives, his normally silent dad would talk to him about his latest ventures. He was the kind of person who could see a problem in the world and immediately think of a way to turn it into a business.

VILLATORO: One day, we were traveling; it was a long trip.

WARNER: And he told him, look at all these potholes in the road.

VILLATORO: And you know, there are many potholes in this country (laughter). And he told me, like, you know what? I found these machine - this truck to fill potholes, so it can be big for us as a family. And you hear your dad being super proud and excited about an opportunity.

WARNER: His dad bought the machine with his own money.

VILLATORO: He had made this big investment.

WARNER: And then he never filled a single pothole. He could not find anyone to pay him to actually do it.

VILLATORO: So he was so ashamed, buying this thing and then the thing was just parked close to the house and not being used, that he never talked about it.

WARNER: When people would say - hey, how's that machine? - he would just pretended it wasn't there?

VILLATORO: Yes. Yes, exactly.


VILLATORO: Failure was this massive taboo. When I grew up, you see the story of my family, and it's all full of failures.

WARNER: So many of his dad's big plans, they would inch right up to the edge of success only to fall apart at the last minute, like the time he secured a big loan from the state bank, which was really hard to get for a small-business owner from a poor state. But then he had some trouble paying the debt, so he went back to the bank to talk to the manager.

VILLATORO: And he got so angry with the regional manager that he took him by the neck and got a little bit violent (laughter) physically with the manager of the bank. So he obviously couldn't negotiate with that person anymore.


VILLATORO: My dad couldn't separate the concept of failure from being a loser. Like, you're responsible for bringing food and money - if you cannot do that, you're a loser; you're worthless.

WARNER: As Pepe got older, being a loser was the thing that he was determined to avoid.

VILLATORO: And I remembered many of these conversations of my parents telling me, you should become an engineer because, that way, you will have a salary.

WARNER: So Pepe went to college and studied physics to become an engineer. But on his last semester, he happened to see a flyer for a competition to invent a business.


WARNER: That was something he'd seen his father do a lot of times. He knew that he wasn't interested in that.

VILLATORO: But it's a free trip to Panama. That was my motivation.


VILLATORO: And I joined the team, mostly physicists creating a business plan for an ecotourism company. We ended up actually being one of the finalists.

WARNER: Pepe got his free trip to Panama and entered this whole other world, where he met people his own age talking about the businesses they'd started.

VILLATORO: This sounds more familiar (laughter). This sounds like what my dad did all of his life.

WARNER: Except that these people weren't failing - they were solving big problems and making money doing it.

VILLATORO: You know, paying rent, paying for their food - doing the work they wanted to do and having the impact they wanted to have.

WARNER: You hadn't seen models like that before.

VILLATORO: It was 2007, and I didn't know the word entrepreneur. And that was a breakthrough moment for me. And I said, I want to be like these people.


WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, and this is ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show where we take you to faraway places with stories that hit close to home. That gospel of successful entrepreneurship Pepe been discovered in Panama, that's something a lot of countries around the world are trying to promote these days. And there's a reason for that. There's a sense that there are fewer jobs for the people being born; robots are taking the jobs we know. That fear over the future of work, it's led to countries encouraging people to start companies of their own. But succeeding at startups also means knowing how to fail.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I want you to celebrate failure.

WARNER: I mean, there's this whole Silicon Valley church of failure that's popped up.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It should be your mantra, your goal in every minute of every day.

WARNER: Billboards telling you...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Fail fast. Fail often.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And you fail quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Your best life is on the other side of failure.

WARNER: But how well does that apply to places where failure has a different sting?

MAMI TAKAHASHI: That kill you - like, kill your whole life.

WARNER: And the barriers to success can make the advice to fail fast feel kind of silly.

FATIMA OLADOSU: So she's not tickled about the word fail fast (laughter).

WARNER: Today on the show, we meet people trying to rewrite that failure mantra to fit the places they live - from Mexico City to Lagos to Toronto to Tokyo. It's a story that begins with one drunken night of agave-infused spirits that ends up sparking a global movement.


WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION - back after this break.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Not long after he discovered the word entrepreneur in Panama, Pepe Villatoro found himself in Mexico City. And there, the entrepreneurial scene was just getting started.

VILLATORO: That was a very small group - maybe a hundred people, a couple of hundred people.

WARNER: Wow, that small.

VILLATORO: Yeah, yeah. Like, people who called themselves entrepreneurs, it was a tiny group.

WARNER: This tiny group saw themselves as different than the thousands or tens of thousands of people in Mexico City who had started their own businesses.

VILLATORO: Obviously, there are amazing entrepreneurs in Mexico City doing more traditional types of businesses.

WARNER: The way Pepe uses this word, entrepreneur, it's people with ideas, mostly tech ideas, who want it to scale up.

VILLATORO: Like, I'm going to do the Mexican Uber. I'm going to do the Colombian scooter company, and then sell those companies to the U.S. You always hear the same stories of success.

WARNER: Pepe would take these long walks around Mexico City, wondering what his big idea could be. And finally, he came up with it - an online source of local news that would expose corruption and other problems that the Mexican papers weren't writing about because they didn't want to cross the people in power. And in Mexico, journalists can get killed for writing these things.

So Pepe would get writers who were citizen journalists, whose identities he would protect. And even though Pepe had never run a paper before - he was just a kid, basically, with a physics degree - and he had no investors, no capital except his credit cards - he managed to get people really excited about this idea.

VILLATORO: I started convincing people to join the team without a salary. And we started going and going. And after more than a year, to my surprise, it started working. We were getting to a thousand active writers.

WARNER: Within a year, they launched a hard copy of the paper that was sold by blind people.

VILLATORO: We had a couple of visually impaired guys - or blind guys, as they prefer. And I remember we were selling in a park here in Condesa in Mexico City. And by the end of the day, they used to say - Pepe, wow, we have so much money.

WARNER: Pepe tried everything to get the company to make money. He tried to sell ads, tried to drum up subscriptions. For two years, he burned through his savings, maxed out his credit cards until he finally had to tell everyone the idea had flopped - all the writers, all the editors, all the web designers who had believed in his vision. One of the blind sellers actually tried to cheer him up.

VILLATORO: He said, Pepe, don't worry. It was great that I was getting a higher income. It's OK.

WARNER: And then the guy adds one more thing.

VILLATORO: Anyways, I was getting extorted by the street mafias of Mexico City.

WARNER: Wait. So you were - you end up realizing you were supporting a mafia economy.

VILLATORO: Yes. At the end of the day, part of our effort was going to the pockets of corrupt people and the mafias.

WARNER: The same mafias that were killing the journalists.

VILLATORO: So I felt like a loser. Because of my hubris, I decided to come here, save the world. And now I realize that I had no idea what I was doing. And so it was a lot of shame. And I decided to put it under the rug and try to avoid the conversation. Sounds familiar again? (Laughter) And...

WARNER: You mean familiar to the story of your dad with the piece of heavy machinery parked outside and he doesn't want to talk about it.

VILLATORO: Exactly. I just decided to hide it. Like, people will say, oh, what happened with the project? Then I would say things like, yeah, well, it didn't work. But now I'm doing this.

WARNER: So then did you kind of not talk about it for...

VILLATORO: Yeah, for at least three years or so. And then one day, we went out for dinner. It was just hanging out with friends...

WARNER: He's out with friends. They are drinking.

VILLATORO: ...Having many mezcales. Someone said, what would happen if we shared our failures?

WARNER: Someone has the idea. They say, hey, let's go around the table and just share the story of our worst failure.

VILLATORO: I thought it was like this really weird idea of sharing failures.

WARNER: Failure was the thing he'd always avoided talking about. Or if he talked about it, he would always talk about it in the context of his present success, just like he'd read about these stories of entrepreneurs in the magazines from Silicon Valley.

VILLATORO: Yes. I would say things like, yeah, well, it didn't work, but now I'm doing this.

WARNER: Failure was just a stepping stone. But now his friend was telling him, no, let's tell the real story.

VILLATORO: Because we had many mezcales, we said let's try it. And we shared, each one of us, our most relevant failure. That was the rule. It was - it became this magical conversation because we laughed with super funny stories. And also, we cried with dramatic stories. And I connected with a part of myself that I didn't want to acknowledge.

WARNER: And what did that feel like?

VILLATORO: Weird (laughter). I mean, it is weird to cry in front of your friends for the first time and your business partners. It is weird to feel this super deep level of connection that I thought I could only feel with my girlfriend, for example. So it felt cathartic in a very good way.

And now I can describe it. Now I can put some words that I feel comfortable to explain the feeling. At that moment, it was just like, wow, like an open mouth of - what's happening here? This is so powerful - that we decided to just invite more friends to see if they also liked this crazy idea of listening to other people's failures.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #6: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: The name that they decided to give this storytelling night of failure; it was his friend who came up with the name.

VILLATORO: He went to college in the U.S. We were speaking in Spanish, but he said that's a [expletive].


WARNER: We can't actually play the name of this night. Or if we do play the name, then we're going to have to put a big E for explicit on the episode. It is a word like screw-up, but not screw. It starts with F.

So that was the one English word he said otherwise.

VILLATORO: Yep (laughter). We are very cultured people.


VILLATORO: (Speaking Spanish).

WARNER: People loved it. They loved hearing these stories. And they came back for a second night and then a third. And in some ways, this scene, it looked like something that you could find in the Bay Area or anywhere that telling stories of failure has become trendy.

Even the crowds that showed up here, with their graphic tees and their designer eyeglasses, sipping draft beer, they would not seem out of place. But Pepe says they were trying to do something different.

VILLATORO: Yeah, the Silicon Valley type of conversation is always, let's talk about failure because it's a taboo; it's cool to talk about it. It's tactical. Right? It's about always tying it to success. You fail with your rocket five times. But then you have a billion-dollar company, and you're so successful, in - on the cover of magazines. The other type of conversation is a personal one.

WARNER: These nights of talking honestly about failure, they were not just a hit in Mexico City. Six months after they started, they had to move to a bigger venue. And then two months after that, they got an email from Spain.

VILLATORO: Spain was a big one.

WARNER: They wanted to start something like this, too. And then other countries in Latin America...

VILLATORO: Argentina exploded, Colombia and then Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland.

WARNER: And they're all a little bit different.


ANNE TOPENOT: Do I need to say my name is Anne?

WARNER: In Nice, France, there's an expression that if you screw up, you can always seize the day at the beach. In Tokyo, the stakes of admitting any kind of failure are much, much higher.

TAKAHASHI: In Japan, mistake - one mistake, that kill you - like, kill your career or, like, whole life.

WARNER: So just getting people to stand up onstage and tell any story of failure can feel almost radical.

TAKAHASHI: Failure is kind of like a bomb.

WARNER: In Toronto, you're supposed to not only note how you have failed but how your failure has affected others.


CHERRY ROSE TAN: And my three other leaders are there. And they're telling me - all of them, in the same week - have ended their relationships with their significant others because they decided that they just didn't have time to have a relationship. And I remember hearing that, and I was so shocked. And I was like, wow, what kind of founder am I? What kind of leader am I when my whole team is not taking care of themselves? And...

WARNER: Listening to these stories of failure taught us two things. One is that there are a lot of ways to fail.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #7: What better way to kick off a celebration...

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #8: It's going bad, but then it went super bad.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #9: I came crashing down four years later.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #10: And it was dead silent after. And I was like, oh, God, like, nobody's clapping. Like, what happened?

WARNER: And second, these nights are about a lot more than just self-reflection and catharsis. These failure nights around the world have a much bigger aim.

OLADOSU: Why are you asking me that question? I don't know yet.

WARNER: That story when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. After talking to failure night founders around the world, we got interested in this one city, which is one of the most recent cities to start a failure night.

OLADOSU: OK. So my name is Fatima Oladosu.

WARNER: When Fatima learned about Pepe's project last year, she was immediately like, we need this in Lagos in Nigeria.

OLADOSU: So I wrote to them and said I wanted to be a part of the group. And a few months later, I signed a franchise agreement.

WARNER: What started all those years ago in Mexico City has now become a franchise. Each time someone wants to organize a failure night around the world, they can pay Pepe's company a fee. They get marketing. They get training, how to coach the speakers. And they get to use the name, you know, screw-up but not screw.

OLADOSU: Yeah. So one of the challenge I have - so people don't like the name. For countries like Iraq, Iran, they use FUN, the acronyms.

WARNER: Is it a special exemption for conservative countries?

OLADOSU: Yes, it is. So I get to do that here. I'm allowed to do that for this year, for one year only - to use FUN. Then we see how it goes.

WARNER: So - yeah. So the failure thing, is that your main income?

OLADOSU: (Laughter) I haven't earned any income in FUN nights. That's one question people ask me: so how do you intend to make money from it? At first, I used to be so angry. Why are you asking me that question? I don't know yet. My husband says I should form an NGO, that I'm not an entrepreneur.


WARNER: Lagos, in one way, is an extremely entrepreneurial city. I've been there. I used to be the East Africa correspondent for NPR. It's one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. And I would meet a lot of Nigerians who had moved back after spending time in the West just to start a venture.

But Fatima says that even though Lagos is a city of 20 million people, it can feel in some ways like a small town. There's all this social pressure from elders to follow their path.

OLADOSU: But if you say you want to start a business on your own, sometimes it's deemed as being rude. And again, the economy doesn't even promote you having a business. The law, this tax, the levies that it puts on entrepreneurs - so you can start one day, and the next week, they'll tell you that, oh, your signage is not supposed to be there.

And there are no proper laws that will really guide you - do you understand? - so you can't even prepare for this thing. So it's a difficult environment, really. It's quite hostile for entrepreneurs to try here.

WARNER: And so how do these challenges connect to you then wanting to start FUN nights in Lagos?

OLADOSU: So it was supposed to be, like, a support group for entrepreneurs. Let me give you an instance. One of the speakers shared of how she wanted to...


NDIDI NWUNELI: Good evening.

OLADOSU: ...Create jam...

WARNER: Like...

OLADOSU: ...That you have for bread.

WARNER: Like you put on bread, yeah.


NWUNELI: And I like jam. My mother is American. I'm sure some of you have guessed, so I used to eat jam growing up in my fridge...

OLADOSU: So she wanted to create jam. That was her dream.


NWUNELI: ...Because 40 to 60% of fruits and vegetables go to waste.

OLADOSU: But it took her a year until she got the registration.


NWUNELI: And we invested in all the equipment.

OLADOSU: And then when she finished getting all the license...


NWUNELI: But as you know in Nigeria, we have a monopolistic industry.

OLADOSU: ...In the industry of sugar...


NWUNELI: So the sugar price went from 6,000 Naira a bag to 12,000 Naira a bag overnight. I even approached one of the monopolists to ask what happened.

OLADOSU: The government enabled that.


NWUNELI: But that's a story for another day.

OLADOSU: Then the bottling company - so you have to put jam in bottles.


NWUNELI: But you have to at least commit to 1 million jars, and we could not commit to 1 million jars. So we started going to dump sites around Lagos to basically collect jars. And we were sterilizing them and recycling them. But then we completed all the dump sites and got all the jars that were possibly there, and there were no more jars available to us.

WARNER: The teller of this story is not someone from a tiny town with big dreams of jam. Before Ndidi Nwuneli started her jam company, she graduated Harvard Business School, and she was a consultant for McKinsey, also the Ford Foundation. And she worked with the World Bank. And she'd founded a successful NGO.


NWUNELI: And someone who believes that life is short, so you have to make a difference.

WARNER: Ndidi is part of a certain stratum of Nigerian society, as are most of the people in the audience listening. And so she does finally make it through all these hurdles, and she gets the actual jam to the customer in recycled bottles.


NWUNELI: And then we came to the average Nigerian with our pineapple, agbalumo, mango, pawpaw - or papaya - jam. And they said, it's not red.


NWUNELI: What type of jam is red now? Strawberry jam. OK. Where do you get strawberries in Nigeria?

OLADOSU: People didn't buy it because, apparently, the research she'd made was not informed enough.


WARNER: You ever heard of the fail fast idea from Silicon Valley or any of the...

OLADOSU: Oh, yes, I - fail fast, fail forward - I have. I have. In fact, 'cause - my friend, she says that - what if you feel slow and you can't fail fast? (Laughter) Then what do you do? So she's not tickled about the word fail fast.

WARNER: Well, it sounds like, too, if you have to wait 365 days for a - your registration, then you may have to fail kind of slowly.

OLADOSU: (Laughter).

WARNER: The fail fast idea, it says test out your ideas quickly so you can move on to something new and better. But when you listen to a lot of these failure night stories from around the world, you hear people mired in obstacles that they can't do much about, like bureaucracy or corruption.

Fatima says that's actually the point of these nights. She says that even if you live in Nigeria, you may not actually know about all these obstacles until you hear these stories.

OLADOSU: For people, it lets you know what is happening in those industries. You - until you are a part of it, until you study it, you really don't know because the information is not totally out there. Do you understand?

WARNER: You mean because there's no clear information on how you're supposed to start a business or what challenges that you might expect.

OLADOSU: Again, because there's no transparency and there are different layers. You might pay to this person - say, oh, you didn't pay the right amount, or you got the wrong license - should have paid to this person. So when people come to share their story, sometime is when you are aware of this issue happening.

WARNER: It sounds like it doesn't matter as much if the stories end with success or with failure as much as they sort of peel back the curtain on what kind of problems the government might throw at entrepreneurs in Nigeria.

OLADOSU: I think - what I've come to realize is that it's not about the government. The government just reflect the kind of people that we are - the guy that refuses to do his job because he just wants you to pay him a bribe. Do you understand?

WARNER: So right - so how does standing up and telling a story of failure, you know, as much support as you get from that - as much inspiration, that guy's not there to listen to it. He's not changing. So how does that help, you know?

OLADOSU: So my hope and my prayer is that everybody that comes is affected, and they affect the next people that they meet and interact with. And they affect the - so the people goes round, really. That's what I think.

WARNER: Oh, so the corrupt official, he will get the message somewhere.

OLADOSU: He will (laughter) because his daughter, his niece will be affected in the system.

WARNER: That daughter or that niece, who 20 years ago might have been going after a government job or left the country, she's now in Nigeria trying to start a business and running into all those obstacles.

NWUNELI: Yeah, you hear the stories. You share the story to the next person. The person is intrigued, and they share that story. Oh, did you hear that person's story? And before you know it, subconsciously, a seed is planted. We're all connected one way or the other.


WARNER: Pepe Villatoro, the college physicist from Mexico City whose own entrepreneurial failure led to all these failure nights around the world, he has now heard thousands of failure stories from places where the odds are truly stacked against entrepreneurs. And it's made him think back to parts of his father's story, seeing his failures in a different light, like that embarrassing time that his dad might have attempted to strangle the bank manager.

VILLATORO: Got a little bit violent (laughter) physically with the manager of the bank.

WARNER: There's a story behind that. The government approved his loan in dollars, and then the government devalued the peso, which felt like some kind of con job. The debt his dad owed went from thousands of dollars to millions.

VILLATORO: And imagine when it's a government-owned bank, the only bank - the only person that can grant you a loan.

WARNER: Or what about that venture with the pothole machine? His father had pitched that plan to the city officials to fix the city's potholes for good.

VILLATORO: And they said that's stupid. We want the pothole to be there next year.

WARNER: They just said that to your dad? They just told him that?

VILLATORO: Yeah, because for the government, the business is actually having potholes because then they can give a bunch of contracts to their cousins with their construction companies and make a lot of money.

WARNER: When his dad felt helpless, he stayed silent about it. And so Pepe started these failure nights to break that silence, that taboo, and make entrepreneurs feel a little more prepared for the bumpy road, more emotionally resilient to start a business in a place like Mexico.

VILLATORO: Because you know, also in Mexico, you - well, anywhere in the developing economies, you understand that success is not final, as Winston Churchill would say, because there will be something always - from a change in government to an earthquake to guerilla to whatever it is.

WARNER: Got it. It sounds like the experience you want people to come away with is that if they have lost, they're not a loser. If they've failed, it's not because they didn't, you know, follow their passion.

VILLATORO: Yes, exactly. I even like to give a talk that I call Don't Follow Your Passion.

WARNER: Don't Follow Your Passion?

VILLATORO: Yeah (laughter), because of that simplistic message of - oh, yes, follow your passion; work hard.

WARNER: That optimistic message of entrepreneurial success that gets exported around the world, Pepe is now more wary of that.

VILLATORO: I think that when you had the idea that I had, which is this can be done just because of hard work, it's dangerous. It's a dangerous story, to be honest, because it opens up the doors for shame.


WARNER: Today's show was produced by Jess Jiang and Autumn Barnes. Our editor is Marianne McCune. Thanks to Karen Duffin, Alex Goldmark, Bryant Urstadt and Sana Krasikov and the many failure night founders that we spoke with - Fatima Oladasu, Marsha Druker, Maricel Sanchez and Mami Takahashi. You can find links to all the failure stories that we played from Toronto and Lagos and others on our website. That's npr.org/roughtranslation.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive council is Neal Carruth, Will Dobson and Anya Grundmann. John Ellis composed music for our show. Mike Cruz scored today's episode, mastering by Andy Huether. Our project manager is Aaron Register (ph).

We would love to hear your story of trying to start something - doesn't have to be a business, any kind of venture across the globe. You can email that story to roughtranslation@npr.org or tweet us @Roughly. We may use that story in a future episode. And as always, if you like these kind of episodes in your podcast feed, you can help us out by rating, reviewing us at Apple Podcasts, and tell a friend about the show.

I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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