Jimmy Wales: Failure Is Key To Success

12 March 2018

This article is a part of our Skills Young People Need for Work in 2030 campaign, with the i newspaper, helping share what skills leaders of today think are going to be the top ways young people can prepare for the careers of tomorrow. Be sure to follow #Skills2030 to see their top advice over March.

Last week, Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales visited students at Norlington Boys School in Leyton as part of Speakers for Schools #Skills2030 Campaign.
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Young people should learn how to fail in order for them to feel more comfortable about taking risks in their careers, the founder of Wikipedia has said. Jimmy Wales, who created the online encyclopedia in 2001, told students at Norlington Boys School in Leyton, east London, yesterday that his success only came about after he suffered a string of failed business ventures in the 1990s.

“The normal case for an entrepreneur is failure,” he said.

“Jimmy Wales is good at failure. It is important to learn how to fail because it is only when you feel comfortable with the idea that you might fail that you can take a risk and do something. That is very hard for people to get their heads round.”

Speakers for Schools Mr Wales, who can command tens of thousands of dollars for speaking arrangements, was talking to secondary pupils as part of the Speakers for Schools programme, founded in 2011 by the ITV political editor Robert Peston. The charity aims to place influential figures into state schools to provide pupils access to people who were once the preserve of the public school old boys’ networks. In partnership with i, the organisation has launched the Skills 2030 campaign. Mr Wales told the pupils that he had become a heavy user of the early internet in mid-1990s. Writing code in his spare time, it was in 1996 when he made his first foray into the tech world with an idea to make it easier for people to order food online.

“Obviously, today there are businesses, such as Deliveroo, that are just huge doing this. But back then it was just a failure. In 1996 restaurant owners looked at me like I was from Mars,” he admitted.

Next, he tried a search engine, called 3Apes, with a strapline “type your search and the apes will find it”.

“I spent about £250,000 on 12 articles,” he said. “Then I tried a new website, that wouldn’t have any advertising. In fact, there wouldn’t be any discernible business plan. And boom – it was a success. We’re the fifth most visited website around the world.”

The entrepreneur said with the rise of automation it was becoming increasingly important for young people to realise that is more important to fail and learn from it than to not try at all.

“In Silicon Valley, if you start a business and it fails, that does not hurt your career prospects at all. It’s considered to be a plus, as long as you understand it, you learn from it. You are more interesting than if you just took a job because it was safe,” he said.

Despite enjoying huge success from Wikipedia, Mr Wales said he is still trying new ideas, not all of which have worked. A recent attempt to launch a search engine business, which was dubbed by the press “Google’s worst nightmare” fell foul of the 2007 financial downturn. His latest project is an attempt to re-think journalism and take on fake news and click-bait websites with his new site, WikiTribune.

Easier to fail Speaking to the i after the event, Mr Wales said it had become easier for young people to fail and still be a success, but that the culture still needed to change.

”Some of the impact of the Silicon Valley culture has moved people away from the old idea of getting a traditional career, and you stay in the one company for 40 years,” he said. “In that context, if you did something that failed after five years, it might be a case of starting from the bottom again. That idea has become easier.

But there is also a huge difference between different cultures and nations. The US is probably the best at this. The UK is not bad, it has an entrepreneurial culture compared to the Continent, where it is a little more traditional.”

You can read more about Jimmy’s talk in the i newspaper here

Many thanks to Jimmy Wales and Norlington School for Boys.

Our campaign brings together 30 of the UK’s top figures on the topic of #Skills2030. We will be running special features with our media partner, the i newspaper, all month.

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