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Want to succeed? Get used to failure.


A few years ago, at a startup networking event, a colleague of mine asked a budding entrepreneur how he was going to grow and scale a business. His response? “Build the app. Marketing. Go viral.” 

Now, while I admire this individual’s chutzpah and ambition, this is not likely to be a successful strategy. Why? Because it does not allow for failure.

There are plenty of stories to be told of hugely successful entrepreneurs who started with failure before finally ‘making it’. Bill Gates with Trof-o-Data, Henry Ford with numerous failed automotive ventures, and even the iconic Colonel Sanders who, penniless at 65, decided that age was no barrier to starting a business that would eventually spawn a global food empire.

Inspiring and intriguing as these tales are, they do not explain why  it is that failure is such an important part of the tapestry of success. Before I go on, I should say that yes, some people will achieve success at the very first attempt. But I would venture that there is always an element of good luck in this and, more often than not, this will not be repeatable.

It is important to learn to fail but to fail fast. More often than not, we will learn what works from learning what does not  work. That is how we as a firm enable both ourselves and our clients to achieve commercial success more quickly; we have been there, we have made those mistakes, and we know how to avoid repeating them. Now, this isn’t to say that we have a magic wand for avoiding failure. We will and still do experience it. But, having become familiar with some of the pitfalls facing early stage companies trying to commercialise their technologies, we now know how to navigate around them, and that makes for a shorter road to success.

Think about how you would approach a challenge. If you did not know how to overcome it, would you put all of your eggs in one basket and go with one approach? Unlikely. Would you be more likely to employ a tactic of trial-and-error, taking slightly longer to find the solution, but also avoiding fatal errors and, eventually, learning what works? I’ll wager it would be the latter.

In this way, we are naturally predisposed to learning from failure but for some reason, this is a bit of a blind spot when it comes to building a business. Too many of the entrepreneurs that I meet, fear failure. When things don’t go as expected, I tell my clients that it is a good thing. We learnt how not  to do something and can therefore quickly move on to trying a different approach. This process of constant iteration is very much at the core of what we do.

As Samuel Smiles said, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”