Entrepreneurs and Failure: A Symbiotic Relationship?

Entrepreneurs and Failure

One statistic I always find sobering is the fact 90% of start-ups fail within the first five years.

When I put this fact to Pete Bailey, the co-founder of Fail Forward, and asked whether such stats prevent people from starting a business, he didn’t hesitate in his reply: “100%.”

The fact is, many of us perceive failure as a distinctly negative thing and the idea that most start-ups will eventually fail puts the vast majority of us off ever starting one in the first place.

My interview with Pete was in aid of an e-book I’m currently writing: The Real-Life Start-Up Series. The series will be a free resource aimed at helping those wishing to start a new business. But when failure remains such an obstacle to innovation, we felt Pete’s input would be essential.

Whilst Pete deals with the concept of failure on a daily basis, and I had prepared to quiz him on the topic, I was surprised at how many other entrepreneurs were willing to be very open about failure and its part in their success.

So far every entrepreneur we have interviewed has either directly or indirectly addressed the notion that suffering failures and setbacks has helped them achieve the success they now enjoy.

The idea that failure is nothing more than a stepping stone is prevalent among the entrepreneurs I have interviewed. They are not fazed by the idea of failing. Many actually see failure as a precursor to success.

In your average person, failure is perceived more in concrete terms as something that should be avoided at all costs. Failure, to many people, is seen as the antithesis of success.

This isn’t the case with truly successful people. A quick search of Google and you will find Michael Jordan, Mark Cuban and several other, highly successful, luminaries sharing the idea that failure is something we all must endure to be successful.

It’s important to see a setback, not as a failure, but a learning opportunity according to London based Bailey.

No matter what has happened, instead of seeing a setback as a failure- which can be hard if it’s emotive- you need to identify the key learning points that you can take from the challenge.

Half way across the world in Durban, South Africa, Nk Mthembu, the founder of the city’s first Innovation Hub, sees failure as part of the process of building a business.

To Nk this was necessary because innovation is all about ‘tinkering, breaking stuff and failing’- you don’t need the finished product to go to market.

If you want proof he practices what he preaches, know that Nk set up the Hub’s online presence just days after growing frustrated at the lack of support for start-ups within Durban. Just one year on, he proudly reflects on his greatest successes as including finding funding for three local start-ups and equipping local teens with the ICT skills to get jobs.

The speed with which Nk started up doesn’t surprise Bailey. He agrees with the principle of starting with an idea and seeing how far it can take you.

You know where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve here, but you don’t know exactly what the path is going to be. As long as you start working toward that goal, you can keep meandering and finding your way along the path until you make it to where you want to be.

Such an approach is bound to be riddled with setbacks, but setbacks and failures are just lessons and opportunities to entrepreneurs. One of our interviewees, Joy Ferguson, is the perfect example of how a setback can become an opportunity.

Joy is a solopreneur of nineteen years. She coaches board level executives of multi-national companies and yet she still feels that starting her business was the hardest part.

Unlike Nk, Joy had considered starting a business for years before doing so. The catalyst that prompted her to start-up? Redundancy. Since then, she has gone on to coach the top executives of huge corporations such as Barclays, Prudential and Shell among many more.

Do entrepreneurs have a genetic resilience to risk or a masochistic need for it? I doubt it, instead they are pragmatic in their approach to failure as something that we will all endure. The difference is how they react to failure.

So how do such entrepreneurs process failure?

Bailey suggests utilizing visualisation and reflection “looking over what happened, what specifically occurred and break it down to help identify the key parts where things went wrong. Then imagine facing that problem again in the future and think about how you would deal with it. So if it does occur again, you can tackle that problem head on with confidence.”

He takes this approach from the examples set by elite athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Paula Radcliffe, who utilised such techniques.

Interestingly, even in the world of elite sport failure is an accepted concept, it is certainly not enjoyed, but it is certainly something even the greatest sport stars alive have encountered.

As Michael Jordan once said:

I’ve missed 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost 300 games. 26 Times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

So forget about the failure rate in start-ups and perhaps think on Wayne Gretzky’s quote: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

About the Author

Henry McIntosh is a copywriter at the British Web Design and Digital Marketing firm Ri Web. Ri Web’s e-book will be released in January and will be free to their newsletter subscribers. Henry’s still interested in interviewing entrepreneurs from all walks of life, so feel free to contact him if you are interested.