Wellesley resident Trond Undheim describes his most spectacular failure as an internet incubator he started as a Ph.D. student in Norway that was 20 years ahead of its time. The venture helped dozens of startups, but not enough went public or got bought to cover the incubator’s growth expenses.
“The entrepreneurship bug had not yet hit the region,” laments Undheim, whose new book Disruption Games offers insights into innovating based on personal examples of business failure and success as well as lessons learned from observing and analyzing others’ experiences.
Undheim’s career has been varied, including stints with the European Commission, Oracle and various start-ups. While not all of his ventures have been winners, he’s had his fair share of successes. Among them: helping startups become unicorns (private companies with valuations of at least $1B) through his work as director of MIT’s Startup Exchange.
“I’ve failed or changed course a number of times and I’m getting to some more of those in my book,” he says. “In fact, when I use the term failure, sometimes that’s what it means (and that’s of course not easy to handle). Other times it is more of a temporary setback that acts as a catalyst to even more significant and focused efforts that pay off more than the original pursuit you set off with.”
Elusive Failure Stories
Writing about failures can be a challenge, Undheim acknowledges, as many are reluctant to discuss such painful parts of their past. I saw this myself for years as a tech business journalist, with potential interview subjects too worried about bad short-term PR or legal ramifications to be forthcoming. But there’s definitely an appetite for such stories (there’s even a locally-recorded podcast called Failure that focuses on this subject).
“It is not easy, and I’m still finalizing some interviews,” Undheim says. “What I’ve found is that founders who since have become successful are much more likely to share their story (no surprise).”
Undheim is marketing his pre-published new book to entrepreneurs and executives through a crowdfunding platform that will introduce Disruption Games to a bunch of publishers if enough people contribute. The book’s contents include lessons learned from startups that go bust, corporate innovation activities that fail, and missed opportunities and misunderstandings that happen when startups and corporations collaborate.
Undheim self-published an earlier book, Leadership From Below, back in 2008.
“That book took me a year to write, but I had to publish it on the one Saturday that I was not working for the European Commission (my boss said publishing a book was not allowed for EU bureaucrats) and not for Oracle (I was joining a job for them in London and did not want to start a conversation about permission to publish a book on day one of my employment). Hence, I went for an early self-publishing route.”
Hopefully, Undheim will have success with his new book. He took away these lessons from publishing his previous one:
“The experience with Leadership From Below was mostly positive. I got a ton of speaking requests in the years following the book (probably for 3-5 years). To know that the message resonated with a variety of people was very satisfying.”