Failure — Foundation Episode 7

Foundation is an eight-part documentary series about entrepreneurs at Station F–the world’s largest startup campus–and all the pitfalls and triumphs they experience while building their businesses.

Episode 7 opens with Loubna Ksibi, founder of Meet My Mama, huddled over her phone with one of her employees. Ksibi pulls up a video that she’s recorded, and the face that pops up is not one you’d expect the average person to have on a self-recorded video: it’s French President Emmanuel Macron speaking to the camera. He says that he wants to someday taste the cooking of Meet My Mama.

A message from the president is the kind of moment that only the boldest entrepreneurs dare to dream, because the realistic among them are all too aware of the minefield of possible failures around them.

For a startup founder who has poured their heart and soul into launching a company, it goes without saying that failure can be devastating. Yet a startup that fails should not be seen as a waste of the founder’s time, because it leaves them with an invaluable set of skills difficult to gain anywhere else: how to run a company, manage people, pitch an idea, and take charge of countless other operational tasks.

Even so, to avoid failure, many startups will choose an option other than fully shutting down: the pivot. They’ll turn their idea on its axis so that it better fits a market, or makes more efficient use of resources, or helps them surmount whatever obstacle blocks their path to success, often the same one that caused them to reassess in the first place. “Agility” is a buzzword in the startup scene for a reason–it’s an essential quality for startups. Those that have it will adapt to survive.

This episode shows that a pivot is no easy feat, and entrepreneurs must rely on their instincts. Those who learn to pivot may find themselves with a personal video from the president, or, like Jasmine Anteunis of Recast.AI, with the simple confidence that they’re doing something right.

In a rare quiet moment for Anteunis, she sits in her own light-filled home and reflects on the work that has gotten her company to this point. She admits that she didn’t have a lifelong dream of being an entrepreneur or setting out on her own. Instead, she searched for an opportunity to create something with other people that would be genuinely useful to others, and when an idea came along that seemed worthwhile, she jumped on it. Perhaps it’s that mentality that has allowed her to enjoy the level of success she has so attained thus far in the series, such as the commendation from Web Summit as one of the top startups at the conference. (Spoiler alert: The best is yet to come for Anteunis.)

Enjoying her own sense of job fulfillment is Loubna Ksibi of Meet My Mama, who we see helping one of the Mamas–a Sri Lankan refugee–set up a bank account. It’s a sweet moment of connection between an entrepreneur and the person she is working to uplift. Later, Ksibi and her cofounder excitedly list out their goals for the Mamas. The idea of failure is not something they discuss in that meeting. For them, failure isn’t an option: they have the Mamas to support, and they don’t plan on stopping until, as they say, they’ve made them into “stars.”

Failure is a more concrete possibility for Les Sherpas. We see the cofounders express how challenging it is to not know exactly what they’re doing or where they’re going. They acknowledge that they may be in a completely new space in three or six months, but maintain that they will continue to make decisions thoughtfully based on what’s best for the company at every step.

One evening at 42 (the Parisian campus for the free coding school that also has a Silicon Valley location), Anteunis nervously prepares for a speaking event. She paces outside the door, certain that “no one will come.” But soon the room is full of people who have come to hear her. She has endured again the agony that every startup founder goes through when launching a product, a service, or, giving a talk: Will anyone will show up? When they do, though, it’s game time.

After her talk, the camera crew follows Anteunis back to a 42 classroom to see where it all began, and points out the computer monitor she used when she was a student there. Gazing around the room nostalgically, she confesses that she never dreamed of founding a startup. At the time, the public perception of startups in France was quite negative, she recalls, tarnished by concepts of products that failed to work. And yet, here Anteunis stands, her company solving real problems for its users and changing that notion one day at a time.

This Review was first published by All Turtles on June 1, 2018.