If you can’t cope with failure, then the entrepreneur lifestyle is not for you. Don’t believe the urban myth that all you need is a good idea and a little fun work, and the money will roll in. When you push the limits, nobody gets it right the first time, or even the tenth time. That’s why the term “pivot” was invented—so you don’t have to call every change a failure.
Thomas Edison called every failure an experiment (now it would be a pivot), and each one told him successfully what didn’t work. Mistakes are more insidious than failures, and should be avoided at all costs (use your advisors and other resources). Mistakes are things you do on purpose, with negative consequences already known, because you didn’t do your homework.
Failures and pivots come in all shapes and sizes, but entrepreneurs need to adhere to a common set of principles for failing productively, leading to ultimate success:
- Don’t allow the same failure twice. This is called the “fail-forward” strategy, or learning more about your business from each failure, as well as developing the confidence and commitment to make decisions and take responsibility for them regardless of the results. Repeating the same failure, or the common failures of others, is a huge mistake.
- Keep the cost of failure survivable. Keep the key elements in your strategy and rollout small enough and tested early, so that a single failure will not bring down the rest of your startup. This is often called the “fail-fast” strategy, with the ability to adapt and iterate to success, based on learning.
- Make each consecutive move a planned experiment. Don’t rely on random opportunities and default decisions to set your strategy. The idea is that there is a right way to go wrong, and “failing smart” allows you to learn something from each pivot. Overt decisions, based on rational thought and real data, will always trump no decision.
- A credible failure makes an entrepreneur more investable. Emanating from Silicon Valley, there is a culture of “fail often,” and you’ll succeed sooner. But be aware that failures are analyzed as closely as successes, to see if they represent real innovation, real learning, and a rational decision process, and indicate success potential.
- Actively seek and don’t ignore critical feedback. Successful entrepreneurs assume some adaptation and change will be required, so they actively seek feedback, spot failures and fix them early. They avoid the instinctive reaction of denial, or the stubbornness of charging straight ahead despite evidence that a strategy is not working.
- Determine not only what went wrong, but also how to do it right. Avoid random trials and errors. If you don’t learn from a specific failure, it becomes a mistake that is destined to happen again. Every failure deserves a root cause analysis, so that you end up fixing the real problem, and not just a symptom.
- Document and update business processes after each failure. Too many failures in startups result from key business processes not being documented at all, or being nonfunctional. Failures should result in better processes and better documentation, or else they might be repeated.
- Never blame bad luck, poor timing, or misjudgment. These are most often excuses, rather than reasons for a failure. There will never be a perfect time to launch a startup. There will always be uncertainty, and we will always be humans, using judgment calls in lieu of knowledge and real information. Explore the root cause of every failure.
- Listen to conventional wisdom and advisors, then chart your own path. New paths are the key to success for an entrepreneur, but unless you listen and do your homework, you will be unable to recognize the old proven paths to perdition. Blindly following old paths, or ignoring known dangers, are unforgivable mistakes.
- Practice resilience as the best antidote to failure. Thomas Edison had resilience, bouncing back after 1000 failures on the light bulb alone. Many experts believe that the primary cause of startup failure is not running out of money, but quitting too early. If you accept failure as learning, it’s not discouraging to keep adapting until you find success.
Success may not really always start with failure, but the wise entrepreneur should expect it, embrace it, and capitalize on the learning opportunity. In reality the difference between success and failure in a startup is very small—for example, being acquired in the throes of a bad experiment might be seen as a success or a failure, depending on your perspective. In the entrepreneur lifestyle perspective, every learning experience is a success, so failure is not an option.
Image credit: CC by TurtleCreek-Branson