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Fail Festival DC is Dead. Long Live Failure!

By Wayan Vota on November 8, 2018

fail festival failure

Way back in 2009, we organized a Twitter Chat on Failure with Michael Downey moderating the freewheeling discussion. Born from that conversation was Fail Faire, which came to Washington, DC in 2010, thanks to Katrin Vercals.

From 2011 onwards, I organized Fail Faires and then Fail Festivals in DC to celebrate failure as normal and expected when we push the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs.

Now, after an 8 year run, Fail Festival DC is done.

In the spirit of sharing our stories of failure, here’s a few reasons why I’ve retired from organizing Fail Festival DC, and at the same time, believe that our effort was a success.

The Easy Answer: Sustainability

While presenting at Fail Festival was always a blast – remember the original Tech Change Fail Song? – it was never a financial success. I lost money on the show every year, but felt it was worth it to give us all something to laugh (and think) about.

Then this year my costs doubled, making the event a financial hardship that was beyond my ability to absorb. Although I was quickly able to find support for the new costs for this year, the new costs meant that next year I’d be scrambling for sponsors again, which is never fun.

The Longer Answer: Exhaustion

After seven years of organizing a 300-person show, I was tired of all the effort it takes to put on such a large production. From searching for good presenters, to coaching them, to working hard to fill Academy Hall with enough paying guests to break even, and then facilitating the actual event, I was always stressed out.

In fact, I remember once in the early years, a friend of mine stopped me in the middle of a frantic moment and told me to stop stressing and enjoy the show. Well now that I live in Chapel Hill, NC, I’m trying my best to do just that – stop stressing and enjoy the show.

So its time for me to step back from my DC event pony rodeo and let others step forward with their ideas for big and bold community events. Maybe someone will come forth with a new, fresh take on failure – and good on them!

The Best Answer: Success

When we started on this journey back in 2009, failure was the “f-word” in international development. I remember the first Fail Faire was a secret production – no tweeting about it allowed lest we get in trouble with donors and lose funding.

Fast forward almost a decade, and failure is here to stay.

  • Failure is now part of our lexicon. Maybe not as often as I wish, and still second to euphemisms like “lessons leaned” or “uneven success” but we’re getting there.
  • Fail Festivals are now a regular feature at conferences and events, many that I’ve helped start, and even more that launched with the spirit of our initial ideas and then growing into their own movements.
  • We now regularly publish failure stories on ICTworks, that are sent in by our peers and coworkers who are not ashamed by failure. They are proud of their efforts and want to share their learnings with us.

So while Fail Festival DC may be at an end, the failure movement is just getting started! Thank you to everyone who presented or attended Fail Festival DC and those bringing pride to failure across our industry.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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18 Comments to “Fail Festival DC is Dead. Long Live Failure!”

  1. Holta Trandafili says:

    What?! That’s not good news to read at 5:30 am.

    I thoroughly enjoyed those events and how they inspired discussions and mini events of FailFest in my organization. We never got to be bold and on stage but nevertheless the event’s impact was real. I had no idea of how much of a personal investment they took to put together. Oh the blissful ignorance of taking things for granted. Thank you for doing all that work for years, Wayan!

    Long live FailFest (in hearts, minds, and may it continue to spur action in our community)!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Holta, your comment is awesome to read at 6am. Thank you so much for sharing how you were inspired to do your own Fail Festivals – that was my whole goal with these events! You just made my day.

  2. Nick says:

    What a great run it was. Wonderful post. Proud to have contributed to it over the years and thanks for working hard to make this memorable experience for so many of us.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      It takes a team – and you all always had great musical presentations. And then there was that blockchain presentation… I still don’t understand distributed ledger technology.

  3. Phil Christensen says:

    Hi, Wayan Sorry to lose the opportunity to attend your Fail Faires now that I’m living in the DC area, after having been able to attend one Faire when I happened to be in town. But I certainly understand your decision and see the lessons learned. Here’s to smart failure!

  4. Chris Light says:

    Thanks for doing this for so many years. Will always regret (perhaps) not getting up on stage and sharing some of the ones that I know of or were part of. Success to your next!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      No need to regret – start your own Fail Festival at your organization’s next big conference. People will love it (and yes, I can help).

      • Chris Light says:

        Maybe something with SID-W now that I am co-chair for ICT for Development.

        • Wayan Vota says:

          We did a Fail Festival at one SID event (or at least I think it was a SID event). We had MK Cope, myself, and three or four others. Best of all, we had a total IT fail during the start – laptop wouldn’t work – that killed half our our time. Oh the irony!

  5. Paul Lamb says:

    I never had a chance to attend Fail Faire but always wish I did. It was a fabulous idea.

    Here’s to you, Wayan, for all of your efforts over the years, and to our collective failures…without which we don’t fully appreciate our successes. Rock on!

    • Paul Lamb says:

      How ironic. I just now came across this article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on how 37% of Foundation CEOs are reluctant to disclose their failures.

      • Wayan Vota says:

        On the positive side, the report that article cites, says that nearly 60 percent of CEOs say their foundation makes publicly available at least some knowledge of what is not working in their programs. But there is still a long way to go.

        As one CEO quoted in the report explains, “It’s hard for people to admit failure. Foundations don’t want to admit that because they see it as failure rather than as a learning opportunity. And despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary, I think a lot of people get caught up in this stuff as a measure of accountability, as opposed to it being tied to a learning strategy.” About one-third of CEOs specifically mention that their foundation faces pressure from its board of directors to withhold information about failures.

  6. Holly says:

    Oh no! Thomas and I super looked forward to FailFest every year! It was a wonderful event, which would be impossible for anyone else to do as well as you have. We will always appreciate and treasure the memories, the cool people we’ve met, and the pure joy and sense of camaraderie (we’re all in this together!) you brought to so many. Well done, and bravo.

  7. Nick says:

    Thanks for spurring these discussions! I appreciate that you continuously go ‘out of your way’ to continuously promote and catalyze discussions in our industry.

  8. Karen says:

    Thanks for creating a safe and fun space for discussing failure. And now it can be taught, discussed and reflected upon with – Evaluation Failures: 22 Tales of Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned

  9. Michael says:

    I was proud to play a small part in kick-starting the culture of embracing failure in #ICT4D, up through attending the final event last October. Thanks Wayan & others for all the efforts over the years!

  10. Margie Ferris Morris says:

    Fail Fest has been an important initiative and I am sorry it can’t go on, this year at least. With every new generation of M&Eers, lessons form the past seem to be lost, and projects fail for the same reasons they did 20 years ago. That is why we need to keep such initiatives going, to raise awareness and help each generation of evaluators not to make the same mistakes!


    Like many others, FailFest was a high point every year (and a sort of company holiday party for homeless consultants like me.) In industries like development that are characterized by complexity, it’s easy to find excuses and lose confidence that solutions are out there. FailFest bridged the complex to the possible by letting us all look behind the curtain (and under the hood). FailFest taught us not to fear failure and gave many a renewed confidence that the best path to some of the most intractable development problems is still found through hard work, naive optimism and good ole’ trial and error. FailFest didn’t just help us avoid recreating the wheel, it helped us acknowledge that a wheel existed in the first place…and as Wayan always told me, “acceptance” is the first and most critical of any 12 step program (or so he heard 😉