FailFest Raleigh Logo

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The entrepreneurs behind FailFest are learning a bit about failure as they launch the first event of its kind in the region.

Just over 50 people have signed up for tomorrow's day of speakers and interactive workshops, planned only since February and announced just one month ago. While that's by no means a failure, they hoped to fill to its 150-person capacity the downtown Raleigh warehouse that HQ Raleigh will soon redevelop into a startup campus three times the size.

Says Vaporware staffer and event organizer Annie Pearce: "It came together quickly. We knew the first one wasn't going to be a home run but we wanted to make sure it was something that the community was interested in. As long as the event lives on, it'll be successful."

Pearce and team are also learning about risk. They're asking people in the Triangle to get out of their comfort zones to talk about the thing they fear the most for their businesses. While it isn't clear from the speaker list what sort of failures will be shared, the team emphasizes that this is a jumping off point.

"You can't change the way people talk about failure with one event," Pearce says. "We wanted to get the community involved and supporting each other. This is about, 'Go tell your story and know there is support out there. We have all failed in some way'."

FailFest was born out of Innovate Raleigh and suggested at last fall's Innovate Raleigh Summit by SAS executive Domino Ireland. He's on tap to kick off tomorrow's event. When Innovate Raleigh formed committees earlier this year, the open community/culture committee led by Vaporware CEO Dan Moore latched onto the idea and contacted the organizer of a similar event in Indianapolis to pick his brain and eventually license the branding and marketing materials. (Moore recently shared his enthusiasm for FailFest on the Innovate Raleigh radio show.)

Jeff Hoffman Priceline
Jeff Hoffman, a co-founder, once CEO of uBid and entertainment executive, keynotes the first local FailFest in Raleigh May 13, 2015.
In the weeks to follow, they landed a nationally-known speaker in Jeff Hoffman, a Priceline co-founder who went on to lead, produce movies and lead an entertainment company. They had no trouble lining up local speakers from all sorts of industries and types of companies. There's small business owners Matt Whitley from Happy + Hale and Jessie Williams of Edge of Urge and The Mamabear Project; startup founders Sean Maroni of BetaVersity and Jess Ekstrom of Headbands of Hope; and nonprofit executives Owen Jordan, founder of RESQD, Nation Hahn of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation and Kelly Phoenix of Nourish International.

Ekstrom jumped at the opportunity to share stories of failure that started at age 12 when she attempted to get published in Chicken Soup for the Soul. They've continued even as she's launched a successful headband business that has donated more than 40,000 headbands to cancer patients.

"I see so many people play it safe in their life and their career because they're afraid of something going wrong," she says. "I want to help change the mindset and show people that failures are proof that you're trying and an opportunity to learn for next time."

Jess Ekstrom Headbands of Hope
Jess Ekstrom founded Headbands of Hope as a student at North Carolina State University. She's since sold over 40,000 headbands and donated as many to kids with cancer. Credit: Headbands of Hope
The committee was determined not to plan a full day of sitting around listening to people speak. So interactive sessions will happen in the morning and afternoon to help attendees learn by doing. AdWerx CTO and comedian Wade Minter will lead an Improv workshop to train entrepreneurs how to put a positive spin on bad things that happen. Skoyz Wellness will host a juggling lesson, in which dropping the ball is the first step to helping jugglers focus on the various ways to throw versus catch it.

And Toastmasters will lead a workshop on public speaking, something many entrepreneurs fear they'll fail at. Participants will get the chance to practice speaking in front of a crowd. "Even if you fail, you're going to learn something by standing up and speaking," Pearce says.

The day will begin and end with sessions led by other Innovate Raleigh committees. The first is a chance to pick the brains of the entrepreneurs about the resources they've used in the region or struggled to find. In the final sessions before happy hour, IBM will pose a corporate challenge to entrepreneurs, and get feedback on how to solve it. It's a test by Innovate Raleigh's corporate engagement committee to see how big companies and entrepreneurs can better interact.

Pearce and team believe they've pulled together a kick off event that only begins a more regular conversation about failure—post-event, they'll brainstorm ways to keep it going. They hope to build a Triangle business community that talks openly, picks each other up after failures, and celebrates the lessons learned along the way.

That's the vibe the group hopes participants get tomorrow. To join in for all or portions of the day, the cost is $25 and you can sign up here