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Malibu firm's Failure Wall lets workers earn from their mistakes

Jeff Stibel, head of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. in Malibu, believes that you have to be willing to fail to succeed — so he has all of his employees write on a Failure Wall.

January 27, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Natalia Williams, a marketing coordinator with Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. in Malibu, writes on the company's Failure Wall. Chief Executive Jeff Stibel believes that you have to be willing to fail in order to learn -- so he has all of his employees write on the wall about the times they have messed up in their lives.
Natalia Williams, a marketing coordinator with Dun & Bradstreet Credibility… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

What if you were asked to write your failures on a wall, in indelible ink, for everyone to see?

Would you make a confession? Would you bare your soul?

What if the person doing the asking was your boss?

Jeff Stibel, chief executive of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., likes to keep his Malibu headquarters hopping.

He came up with the Failure Wall one night late in 2010 when he was having a glass of wine with his wife.

They were toasting a business success. Stibel said he found failure more fruitful.

"I love celebrating successes — we do it all the time — but personally they do nothing," the veteran of Internet start-ups said recently. "I can never tell whether it was lucky, whether it was the right time, whether it was an accident.

"But when I fail, I always know why I failed and I usually don't make that mistake twice."

Why not, he said, encourage creative risk by embracing failures and the lessons to be learned from them?

Stibel, 39, has the look of a fresh-faced and earnest class president.

Before business, he worked toward a PhD in brain science at Brown University, and he still writes articles and books about the brain on the side.

When he talks rapidly — as he often does — about ideas, his big brown eyes grow huge and his words bounce out like popcorn popping.

"I'm a manic manic. I've got one button, and it's on. I wake up, 'Yeah, let's do it.' No one will give me coffee."

No surprise, then, that talking failure over wine led to paint and paintbrushes — immediately.

Stibel's assistant got a late-night call. They met at the office and, into the wee hours, stenciled quotations on a white wall 15 feet long and 10 feet high.

"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself." — Charlie Chaplin

"Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." — Robert F. Kennedy

Then, with a permanent Sharpie, Stibel scrawled on the wall what he deemed a personal failure: He'd waited too long to start having kids.

Others soon followed.

"Didn't realize who the most powerful person in the company was ... until I wasn't in that company any longer."

"Called out someone for the wrong definition of 'decimate.' It turned out I was wrong and I had to apologize to everyone there."

"Worked on a ticket for 2 days, turned out someone else was working on it the whole time. Read the ticket."

All disclosures are signed. That's part of the idea. To grow from mistakes, you have to own them.

Such a notion might flop in a sea of gray cubicles and supervisors scowling behind closed office doors.

Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. helps businesses monitor and boost their credit and standing. The more than 100 people in its Malibu headquarters put in long hours, developing, coding and promoting its products. But they do so in an airy space, with a fine view of the Pacific and plenty of perks.

Each day, Stibel finds a space at one of the long tables where people work communally. He doesn't have his own desk.

The Failure Wall is in the office's large recreational room — in front of the pool table, near the Foosball, pingpong and game stations, a few yards from the scooters and pogo sticks and the back patio where the Russian club meets Friday nights for dinner and vodka.

Stibel supports almost anything to foster creative thinking, he says. An employee simply has to ask. Persian New Year celebration? Go for it. Yoga teacher? Sure.

Last year, after a marathon trainer was brought in, more than half the staff ran the L.A. Marathon.

A weekly speaker series — on any subject but business — alternates between talks by outsiders and employees. A state archaeologist has outlined Malibu's history. An engineer spoke of autism and his autistic son. Stibel explained neurons and networks.

Put all of this together and you get the company's social media coordinator, Lennon Cole, 26, standing at the wall a few months ago, feeling comfortable enough to share a previously private guilt: that when he worked at his father's auto repair shop between high school and college, he put in his hours and no more.

"Did nothing when my father's business went under because it 'wasn't mine.'"

It felt frightening, at first, to write the words, Cole said.

"But then it felt really, really good."

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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