Facing Failure Head On: What Our Startup Learned From One of Our Biggest Mistakes

Originally posted on LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/3jNLr2r

I’ll admit, I’ve recently felt an imbalance in what I, and Cyclica, have been sharing externally. It’s largely been positive news that highlight our successes, along with general thoughts about the topics in which we have interest. Don’t get me wrong, things are going well, but the trajectory of Cyclica has not been straightforward. It never is for a startup.

The trajectory for us, as with the vast majority of early stage companies, especially those innovating in deep tech, resembles this:

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(Yes, I recognize that time can’t go backwards - this is more for illustrative purposes.)

The entrepreneur community is constantly promoting the value of failure. We hear advice such as "fail fast" and "fail forward" and many leaders have even stated that failure is the secret to their success. Sir Winston Churchill famously stated, "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." We know failure is important, but as a society we don’t often share how we fail. If we are being advised that failure is acceptable, why don’t we really show it?

As a leading company at the forefront of AI and drug discovery, a fast and hyper innovative space, it’s important that we show a balanced story. As we know, with AI, relying only on positive data leads to a biased perspective. We can’t call ourselves a machine learning company if we aren’t willing to acknowledge, accept, and learn from our mistakes, and include this balanced data and perspective to inform our mental models. The uncertainty of failure, and the roller coaster of emotions, is normal. But, to turn these emotions into something productive, we need to do more than talk about failure - we need to show it, which admittedly is not easy. While we are proud of the accomplishments we’ve made as a team at Cyclica over the past few quarters, we have also faced many challenges along this journey. Despite the difficulty our challenges presented, we own these moments, and they are critical to our story. They are part of who we are.

This article is our attempt to bring to light some of the low points in our history, which have been integral to our success as a company. I am going to highlight our biggest failure at Cyclica under my leadership, how we responded, and what we learned from it. Here we go.

The biggest failure was not prioritizing our people, and failing to protect our culture.

We have a guiding principle at Cyclica: Hire, reward, and retain the best, brightest, and most committed people. Set them up for success. We came up with this statement in April 2016 when we were a team of 7. Fast forward 2 years to April 2018, when Cyclica was a 17 person company, and in a span of 8 weeks, 6 team members left. I remember this vividly - the first domino fell while I was on a business trip. Within two weeks, the next domino fell, and it spiraled from there. Only one team member communicated to us beforehand that they were thinking of leaving. The rest simply gave us notice. This was, to put it bluntly, an existential crisis in my view. Not to mention that it halted our R&D plan for a few months as we played catch up. The "what" was clear: people left. The "why" was unknown, and this is what we set out to uncover, quickly remedy, and learn from.

What we learned from a deep dive analysis, along with post-exit interviews of the folks who left is the following:

  • They all left for different reasons. One person went back to school, another sought a different opportunity, and others got poached by different companies. Irrespective of their reasons, they left.
  • While they found the work at Cyclica inspiring and enjoyable, they lacked structure around mentorship and performance evaluation, and were seeking more insight on career projection.
  • Organizational structure was an issue, and from their perspective they did not have adequate visibility across the organization.

When we sat down as a management team, everyone was shocked. Honestly, we thought we had this part under control. We had a performance management system, an organizational chart, and even an employee handbook. Once we dug in deeper, the issues become clear. Our ethos was out of whack. Though those documents existed, they were just "there." They were not infused into our culture - nobody read them, and they certainly weren’t adhered to. We simply didn’t do enough to prioritize our people. We weren’t actively creating an environment where our people were free to think, deliberate, and share ideas openly, and where they could collaborate to innovate wonderful solutions to some of the most complex problems in our industry.

Over the subsequent 12 months, we made some adjustments, but there was still a lot of work to do. Admittedly, it was very difficult. I am on the road 60-70% of the time for business development, fundraising, and corporate development activities. The buck stops with me, and I just wasn’t doing enough to set the tone. So, in April 2019, we hired a People Champion, Carly Holm, who together with myself and my Chief of Staff, Gary Kivenko, have now reshaped our entire people strategy, including our job postings, interview process, onboarding, performance management, all-hands meetings, and other important people-centric pillars. We’ve said for a long time that Cyclica is committed to establishing and maintaining a high standard of ethical practices in the workplace, and encouraging practices that support integrity and honesty. To support these commitments we have established procedures to provide an avenue for our now 35+ team members, volunteers, contractors, temporary team members and other stakeholders to raise awareness of concerns in good faith related to unethical or illegal practices within the scope of our organization’s operations.

The biggest lesson that I learned, and that I want to share with every entrepreneur is that focusing on product development, business development, and fundraising at the expense of focusing on your team is short sighted. That debt will catch up, and when it does, it’s a painful lesson. Trust me. It may take extra energy to think about soft skills like infusing meaning and visibility through all-hands meetings, as well as 1:1 coaching, mentorship, and career discussions, but doing it right the first time will inculcate a culture that will then propagate to new team members, and will save you the heartache and the financial loss of having to replace really good people. For me, the saying "keeping an eye on the prize" has taken on a whole new meaning - the prize is my team.

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I wrote this article to show, rather than tell, why failure is important. As we continue to highlight our successes as a company, understanding the points in our journey where we could have done better is equally, if not more, important. While our wins may make the headlines, our losses got us there. And celebrating the losses is as important as celebrating the wins. As one of the world’s top 20 AI companies in pharma R&D, it’s important to recognize that we too have failed - and that we moved onward and upward.

*Thanks to Natasha Puri, Marketing & External Affairs Strategist for being a sounding board during this challenging write. Cyclica is very lucky to have you.

Cover image credit - Unsplash

Naheed Kurji, Chief Executive Officer

Naheed Kurji, Chief Executive Officer

Naheed Kurji is the Co-Founder, President and CEO of Cyclica. Naheed is passionate about building AI-augmented technologies that enable researchers to make more strategic and informed decisions in Healthcare and the life sciences. He spends the majority of his time obsessing over Cyclica’s culture, defining its strategy to best effect change in the pharma industry to achieve the company’s vision, and exploring opportunities for continued innovation.

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