When To Admit “I Messed Up”

"When is it OK as a Founder to admit we're wrong? What's the cost of keeping our mouth shut versus opening up? If I'm going to go ahead and admit I dropped the ball, what's the best approach?"

May 12th, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter

There's absolutely no way to go through the startup journey and not screw something up — OK, a ton of things. So why, as Founders, are we so bad about admitting our mistakes?

Unlike many other aspects of life, both personally and professionally, admitting we're wrong appears to have much more painful consequences to Founders because so many more people are involved. When I worked at a job and I messed up, the only people that were affected were my boss (who was unsurprised) and potentially my co-workers (who definitely didn't care). The consequences of my mistakes were tiny.

But now I have 200 people that rely on me. If I make a mistake, it affects all of them, and in some cases all the people that they are connected to as well. As Founders, the cost of our mistakes goes up exponentially. And with that, our hesitancy to admit we're wrong.

So what happens when we avoid admitting we're wrong, and what can we do to get past that feeling?

The Longer We Wait, the Worse it Gets

The worst part about not admitting we're wrong is that we often don't have to — everyone else already knows it! We tend to think that when we finally "admit" we screwed up, then — and only then — will people recognize we dropped the ball. We feel like that admission will unleash a tidal wave of anger and frustration upon us.

But in reality, it's actually the opposite that happens. Every moment that goes by where we avoid addressing the problem adds more hot air to a balloon of frustration that's about to pop. Time is not our friend.

The faster we get in front of the situation, the faster we can own the situation. Maybe we made a bad hire, or a horrible marketing decision, or flubbed the last sales pitch. It doesn't matter. The way to put a bullet in the issue is to just own it and move on. Anything else makes it worse.

The Value of Vulnerability

The very act of admitting we're wrong also sets a powerful precedent among the team — "If the Founder can be wrong, then so can I." We have a lot of responsibilities as Founders, but one of them that few of us recognize is the responsibility to be vulnerable so that others can do the same.

When we admit we're wrong, the very act says "Hey, I'm human, you're human — we make mistakes. It's OK." The thing is, people are going to make the same mistakes whether we have a culture of admission or not. The only difference, in a culture of zero vulnerability, is we lose the communication that comes with those mistakes. The more we open up the culture with vulnerability, the more that communication flows, which as leaders is exactly what we're striving for.

It's OK to be Wrong

Regardless of whether the act of admission benefits the org, let's not overlook the fact that it's just OK to be wrong. There's no possible way to get through this journey without being wrong. We're all running naked into the abyss here, friends. Everyone is guessing.

We're hoping that those guesses will turn out right — but that doesn't change the fact that they are guesses. That also means there's no possible way to always be right.

When we're wrong it's not just about being OK with it — it also helps to explain how we got there, to begin with. How did we see the world at that time when we made that bet? Why did we think it was the right bet? The better we explain our conditions the easier it is for folks to understand why we made a mistake in the first place.

There's absolute power in being able to claim not only our victories — but our losses as well. We can't have one without the other.

In Case You Missed It

The Emotional Cost of Being a Founder. When we talk about building startups, we talk about lots of costs: Staffing costs, the cost of capital, cost per acquisition, and opportunity cost. But we never talk about the biggest cost – the emotional cost.

Is it OK to admit I have flaws? (podcast) When is it okay for a Founder to be open with their team and business partners about their personal problems? Listen in to hear how we’ve come to learn to deal with our flaws in a healthy and productive manner — it can be done!

Why Do I Feel So Alone? No one ever tells you in the “Starting a Company” brochure that the journey will not only include crippling anxiety, drowning in personal debt, and endless challenges — but also a healthy dose of personal loneliness.

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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