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At BmoreFail, conference attendees celebrate — and conquer — failure

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Most business conferences celebrate success, with speakers who urge attendees to become the next rock stars in their profession.

But in Baltimore on Friday, failure will get its due. At BmoreFail, local business leaders and entrepreneurs will expose their biggest mistakes to show how they overcame initial missteps on their path to success.

"My philosophy is, how could you ever possibly know success if you don't have any idea about failure," said Tracy Gosson, who founded the nonprofit housing group, Live Baltimore Home Center, in 1997, but left it behind for economic development consulting several years ago. Gosson will be one of the speakers at the conference at the Du Burns Arena in Southeast Baltimore.

The conference, hosted by the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, is the latest quirky event to come out of the city's technology community. It will feature a clinical psychologist who talks about the psychology of the fear of failure, local business leaders who share instructive blunders, and a high-speed "fail-off," where speakers will pitch their failure stories to a crowd of hundreds, who will vote on a winner.

Tickets cost a lucky $13. Up to 300 people are expected to attend.

The conference reflects an approach that has spread widely in technology and business circles, where entrepreneurs are encouraged to take risks, understand their failures and adapt as quickly as possible.

Talking about embracing failure is practically a cliche in pop psychology. But lately, the idea has been embraced with zeal by a new crop of entrepreneurs who follow the writings of Eric Ries, an entrepreneur, engineer and blogger who wrote "The Lean Startup," a book about how new companies should learn quickly from failures and tweak their products based on continuous feedback from customers.

Nowadays, the twin ideas of failing quickly and failing cheaply are increasingly part of the chatter at tech conferences and business incubators across the country.

BmoreFail is the brainchild of Jason Hardebeck, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council and an entrepreneur who sold his company, WhoGlue LLC, to Facebook last year for an undisclosed amount. Hardebeck, who has lived and worked in Baltimore for years, said entrepreneurs here who took risks and failed were sometimes stigmatized rather than supported.

"It's something that's bothered me about this place for a while," said Hardebeck. "Entrepreneurship was not a badge of honor. It was looked at with suspicion."

Notions of failure are being challenged and reassessed in the world of technology startups, as the cost of doing business has dropped precipitously. A decade ago, an Internet startup would have needed to spend millions of dollars to build a website and reach a large audience. But now, the cost of Internet infrastructure, bandwidth and online storage has plummeted. And millions of smartphones now offer entrepreneurs another way to reach consumers through widely distributed apps.

In many ways, the startup world is starting to embrace the scientific method of experimentation typically seen in the academic world, said Sarge Salman, a chemist and technology commercialization professional who plans to attend BmoreFail.

Salman recently started organizing a Lean Startup circle for Baltimore, a group of 40 members and growing, who meet to talk about how they are applying the methods of regular experimentation and failure to achieve business success.

"It's a very disciplined approach," said Salman. "It's great that it's being discussed at a conference. There's a method to this. It's not luck. It's not Eureka! moments. It's about going about it in a methodical way."

It's also about how someone copes with failure in a personal way, said Dan Wagner, a clinical psychologist in Rockville and an adjunct professor at Stevenson University. Wagner, who will talk about the psychology of failure, said people who struggle with feelings of failure are trapped in a cycle of dwelling on negative thoughts.

"It's that internal monologue that plays such a huge role" in coping well with failure, said Wagner. "My message is simple: Failure is part of the journey."

Jessica Gartner, a teacher of sixth- and seventh-grade students at New Era Academy in Cherry Hill, said she's bringing more than 40 students to BmoreFail to expose them to alternative views on coping with and responding to failure.

The students rarely leave Cherry Hill, a poor neighborhood in South Baltimore, so Gartner sees the excursion as a way to show the children how business professionals interact in a public setting on a sensitive topic.

"They'll be trying to learn from the failure stories," said Gartner.

The failure story that Robert A. Rosenbaum, a BmoreFail speaker, plans to share involves his experience as an investor. Rosenbaum is the president and executive director of TEDCO, a quasi-state entity that promotes technology-based economic development in Maryland.

Before TEDCO, Rosenbaum was a managing director of an venture fund that invested $9 million on behalf of investors but couldn't raise a second round of investment and had to shut down as the recession hit several years ago. The fund still has not been able to return capital to investors.

"Failure is OK if you learn from the experience," said Rosenbaum. "If you don't learn from it, then it's a failure."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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