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Putting unvarnished failure on stage, in Michigan and beyond

Over the past decade, failures have piled up in Michigan like snow in Buffalo: a university football team that never wins championships, the loss of manufacturing jobs and residents, Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the state’s largest company, General Motors, followed by its largest city, Detroit. Failure has become a fact of life in The Great Lake State.

Now, a small company from Grand Rapids, Mich., has found a way to generate success from all that failure—and it’s starting to export its services across the world. Failure: Lab puts on storytelling events that focus on personal disappointment and mistakes, and it plans to license its program to local groups in Mexico City, Sydney, and Johannesburg in 2015. The company’s first international event took place at a university in Chandigarh, India, in November, and its founders say more colleges intend to hold them, perhaps to combat young adults’ fear of failure or their impossibly high expectations.

Failure: Lab’s stories of screw ups and setbacks are unvarnished and do not offer a resounding conclusion packed with lessons learned or comebacks staged. Many of the tales focus on childhood memories of being labeled ugly or feeling fat and awkward or unloved, of divorce and teen pregnancy from small rural towns in Michigan and from the streets of Detroit or Chicago.

“What we ask the storytellers to do is to dig deep for that intimate personal story of failure…. It’s … a public confession with no lessons,” said Jordan O’Neil, one of Failure: Lab’s three co-founders. The goal is to give the audience a chance to interpret whatever lessons these stories may contain on their own.

The stories, posted on YouTube and on Failure: Lab’s website, come from local celebrities like singer-songwriter Dwele and business leaders, among others. One of the founders’ favorites was a story by Kathy Crosby, president and CEO of the Goodwill Industries in Grand Rapids, who discussed what it was like to be overweight as a child and as an adult, and what she missed because of it.

Embracing failure has almost become fashionable in the startup world, amid the rising popularity of events such as FailCon, which allows entrepreneurs to share business meltdown lessons, and executives advocating for the acceptance of failure as a pathway toward innovation. “I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at, literally,” Jeff Bezos told the audience at the Business Insider Ignition conference in December. “If you’re going to take bold bets, there are going to be experiments,” and those experiment are “prone to failure,” in addition to success, Bezos said.

In Michigan, it’s fair to say that failure, and how to respond to adversity overall, has been on the mind. The state’s jobless rate was the highest in the country for more than a year in 2009, topping 15%. “We were one of the first states to really hit bottom” said Jonathan Williams, a Failure :Lab co-founder who works in digital marketing.

In December, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor (F) encouraged its employees and suppliers to view failure differently. In fact, the auto giant identified “flaunting failure” as a micro-trend that will affect business innovation and culture in the years ahead. “The stigma of failure is eroding,” wrote Ford futurist Sheryl Connelly in an annual trends report. “Today’s consumers embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and increasingly recognize—and accept—that their own lives and the products they use are constantly in beta mode.”

Al Koch has worked on corporate restructuring efforts, including GM’s (GM), as a managing partner at AlixPartners in suburban Detroit. He’s seen a gradual change in attitudes toward bankruptcy, in Michigan and across the United States. “There is certainly acceptance, if not admiration, for companies or entities that have the intestinal fortitude to basically confront themselves” and restructure their finances, Koch said in an interview.

Failure: Lab launched its first event in Grand Rapids in early 2012, as a response to a storytelling event in which the cofounders thought that too much energy and time were used up in sharing comeback stories.Failure: Lab coaches storytellers on how to share their personal failures, and yet some still break down and cry or need to stop and regroup. Just before they take the stage, one of the organizers reminds them: “Don’t share any lessons.” The stories are stronger, more likely to connect with audience members, and be remembered without an epilogue or comeback tale, Williams said.

The founders had held events in Detroit, Chicago, and other Michigan cities, when requests from Australia and India started to come in.

In mid-December, Failure: Lab launched a website that encourages its storytelling event planners to connect. The company relies on sponsorships and ticket sales to generate revenue, and they are looking to sign up global sponsors as part of its expansion plan.

Failure: Lab’s founders created a digital kit and a licensing agreement that, for $1,500, allows an individual or group the right to produce their own local version of Failure: Lab. “We walk them through the process” and help with ideas and implementation, said Austin Dean, the company’s third co-founder, who works at a tech incubator in Grand Rapids.

Simone Sheridan read about Failure: Lab in an Australian newspaper. “I loved the bravery in people sharing their stories on such personal and sensitive topics,” she said in an email interview. She is organizing an event in Sydney, likely for this summer, and said the early response has been positive. “People want to share their journey and others are fascinated … to see people be vulnerable by talking about failing moments.”

So far, none of the three founders has shared a failure story with an audience. Instead, as they developed the idea of Failure: Lab, they sat together in a darkened room with a camera and shared their biggest mistake with each other.

“We reserved our failures for when a storyteller doesn’t show up,” said O’Neil. Or maybe for the day when Michigan has enough successes that failure stories seem quaint or surprising.