William Wolfram

Founder of Fail Ventures

William Wolfram is the founder & CEO of Fail Ventures, a venture studio that embraces failure. Born in Helsinki, Finland, William started his first company at age 12. William has a unique past, dropping out of school at age 15. He became a self-made millionaire by age 16, hit $10M+ of profitable sales by age 18, and hit $40M profitable sales by age 20. By age 28, the young entrepreneur has already amassed over $500M of profitable sales online. He was awarded Finland’s national EY Entrepreneur of the Year for 2013, recognized by the President of Finland for his entrepreneurship and job creation and is a 2016 graduate of the 3-year OPM program at Harvard Business School. Today he runs fail.vc, a venture studio based in Hong Kong which prides itself on embracing failure and encouraging entrepreneurial risk taking amongst its team.

Where did the idea for Fail Ventures come from?

Anyone who has tried, will know, it’s difficult to build winning ventures online. There’s lots of competition from all around the world and even some great ideas with terrific execution might not be enough if the timing is off or you just can’t seem to find product market fit for any number of reasons. The key thing we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that success is about not giving up. It’s about launching and building new ideas with enthusiasm time and time again even when you keep failing to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep swinging. In fact, from the outside our business might look like a success, but from the inside the only thing constant over the past 15 years has been consistent failing. We have launched a total of 68 ventures. Only 4 of those ventures have succeeded. Luckily the 4 that have succeeded have been able to pay for all the 64 failed ventures costs multiple times over. With each failure we have learned something new. That’s why I wanted to create a company that celebrates failure and encourages entrepreneurial risk taking in my team. People fear failing too much and it prevents them from being truly innovative. I want to change that and unleash the creative beasts inside of all of us.

Many of our employees have joined in entry level positions and today have become financially free and built great personal wealth. Some have left to start their own businesses and done terrifically well, while others have become CEOs and successful executives running these businesses with full autonomy today.

Embracing failure does not mean doing sloppy work, it does not mean not trying your best, it just means pursuing riskier ideas and not worrying too much about what others will think when and if they don’t work out. Being willing to cut your losses earlier and admit mistakes without shame. I believe anyone is capable of coming up with extremely innovative and out of the box ideas. What if we could all embrace failure more in our careers and societies to unleash the creative beast that lies within all of us?

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I spend a lot of time working on new ideas. We call it flaring. It’s a form of brainstorming where we build on each other’s ideas and go “Yes and!”. Once something makes sense we go out and build it. That can take anything from a few days to several years depending on the idea. Once we find a successful venture, we build a management team and choose a CEO who gets the full autonomy to run it their way. We find that really talented CEOs can take a business from $1M of revenue to $100M of profitable revenue when given a chance. My job is to go from zero to one, their job is to scale it to orders of magnitude bigger. It’s not always easy giving up the CEO role for your “baby”, but it’s got to be done. There are people that specialize in taking things from $1M to $100M+ and then there are people that are really good at going from zero to one. It’s hard to be great at both.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Working with extraordinary people. We read a lot and generally stay very curious about the world. We use WhatsApp all throughout the day and whenever something interesting comes up in our world or an unusual thought enters, we share it with each other and that keeps the creative juices flowing.

What’s one trend that excites you?

20-minute delivery times for e-commerce businesses. The infrastructure that has been built by food delivery startups over the past few years will start to tap into other areas of e-commerce and enable a whole new type of commerce.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I enjoy reading a lot. I love talking with people who have different points of view and learning new things that way. Changing my environment when looking for new ideas. I find that spending time in nature is the best way for me to find new ideas out of the box. I’ll go hiking or out sailing to get inspired and do some thinking.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Keep going, trust yourself, and enjoy the journey.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Only the “artists” will survive. More and more of our high paid jobs will be automated away thanks to AI and software. The last area of high paid jobs that will take a bit longer for AI to replace will be those jobs that rely on human creativity. We should be emphasizing creativity in our education system and emphasize it so much more in our workplaces. There are tangible real world things leaders can do to double or triple the creative output of a team.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Talk directly to customers on the phone. You learn so much and you can really get a sense for what’s working and what’s not.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Make sure you interview at least 100 of the best candidates for every person you hire. We obsess over talent. I have always aimed to hire people smarter than I and everyone I work with is teaching me new things I didn’t know before. The temptation to hire quickly when you are understaffed is huge but must be pushed back on.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One failure… where do I start? Our company is literally called Fail Ventures. For every success we have failed over a dozen times. Failure is celebrated and then you pick yourself up and keep winning.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

20-minute delivery times in e-commerce fueled by the food delivery startups will create a huge opportunity for the right e-commerce brands to seize. I am thinking about this a lot at the moment, someone’s going to create and capture a lot of value here. Not entirely clear to me what part of the value chain will do best, but it’s clear that there is something here to be done.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Covid-19 test. It’s important that I know that I can meet my parents in law and older relatives and friends without worrying that I might give them COVID-19.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I use WhatsApp more than email. I find that small casual conversations that are frequent is a great way to stay in touch and share ideas.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Innovators Dilemma.

What is your favorite quote?

“Whether you believe you can or cannot, either way you are right.”

Key Learnings:

  • Embrace failure to create an innovative environment and encourage entrepreneurial risk taking in your team.
  • Obsess over the talent. Meet and interview at least 100 people for every person you end up hiring. Always hire people smarter than yourself!
  • Have fun & don’t take yourself too seriously!