Stop Thinking You Are Going To Fail Just Because Someone Says You Should

Many would be entrepreneurs don’t start their own venture because they are afraid of failure. And quite frankly, they have every right to be afraid. After all, we are constantly bombarded by vague sayings like “9 out of every 10 startups fail” or “chalk up your first startup as a learning experience”, or my favorite, “most relationships and marriages can’t survive a startup”. After you hear enough of these cliches, you soon start believing them.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall

The problem is that these ideals are further reinforced by the various entrepreneurship blogs out there that are telling everyone to fail early and fail hard because that is how you learn. Everywhere we turn, we are constantly reminded that statistically speaking, there is an extremely high probability that your first startup is going to die so it’s better to get that first failure out of the way.

Seriously folks…If I went into a startup believing that it was going to fail, then why the heck would I risk the money and heartache in the first place? Would I really want to spend all of my time on a business, potentially destroy my social life and personal relationships just so I can gain a new learning experience? No way! If I’m going to do something, then it’s going to have a high probability of success.

Failure Is Misinterpreted

The main problem is that the term “failure” is way overused and rarely defined. To me, the term failure in an entrepreneurial context is far different than that of failure in a more traditional sense.

For example, outside of entrepreneurship, failure simply means to give up or to be unsuccessful. Sally opened a flower shop, didn’t make enough money and decided to close up her shop. Game over. She failed.

Rick challenged Gary to a game of 1-on-1 basketball and lost. Rick failed to beat Gary.

In any case, you get the picture. Failure in a traditional context is just that…you are unsuccessful at something you have tried to do. But something magical happens when we talk about “failure” coupled with entrepreneurship. Failure becomes a good thing and you know why? It’s because failure has a different definition altogether in the world of entrepreneurship.

Failure Means To Experiment

Failure is just a way we entrepreneurs gather data. When my wife and I were trying to decide what to sell, we tried selling many different things on Ebay and Craigslist. I went through this phase where I was buying computers on Craigslist, stripping them down and selling each part piece by piece on Ebay. This little experiment netted me very little money for the effort I was expending so in fact it was a “failure”. It just wasn’t worth my time so I stopped doing it.

When my wife first wanted to sell embroidered goods, she tested out over 30 designs, but very few of them ever sold. So you could say that roughly 90% of her designs failed.

When my wife and I made our first inventory purchase for our online wedding linens store, 50% of the items we bought never sold and are still gathering dust on our shelves. Our first purchase was a failure because we bought too many items that were undesirable to our customer base.

Even though my first venture was a 100% failure, my wife’s designs failed at a 90% rate and 50% of our inventory was unsellable, these didn’t feel like real failures to me. It’s because as an entrepreneur, I considered every failed experiment a success because it brought me that much closer to finding out the right thing to do. By finding out what didn’t work, my wife and I could stop wasting time going down the wrong path.

Failure Means To Adapt

When an entrepreneur fails, it’s not the end of the business but merely a detour. When one path is blocked, entrepreneurs adapt and find new ways of doing things.

My wife and I hit so many roadblocks with our online store that I’ve since lost count. But looking back, probably our biggest failure was that we targeted the wrong set of customers and the wrong target market when we first launched. This was a big deal because we tailored our entire website towards these customers who didn’t want to buy from us.

Without going into to much detail, we initially targeted our linen products towards embroiderists looking for materials for crafting projects. Because we wanted to do as little manual work as possible, we tried selling our goods with no value added to the end consumer. In a nutshell, we simply repackaged the goods from our vendors and tried to sell them directly just like every other store.

Turns out that most embroiderists prefer to purchase their embroidery materials from one stop shops. Sure, we had the largest selection of handkerchiefs but we couldn’t compete because we didn’t sell anything else. In addition, the margins for embroidery supplies was not very high either.

In any case, when we found out that targeting embroiderists wasn’t working, we did a 180 and positioned ourselves in the wedding market which worked out much better for us.

Failure Means To Bounce Back

Nothing ever goes according to plan. You can’t predict the future nor can you anticipate all of the little things that will happen. The most important thing that defines failure is the ability to bounce back.

The marketing plan for our online store was a textbook example of failure. We kept trying every method to get traffic to our store, and when one method stopped working, we simply went onto the next. Looking back, there were many dark days when we both wondered whether we were wasting our time, but gradually, our business eventually picked up. While it is difficult to quantify exactly which marketing tactic was the most effective, I can say that collectively, all of our marketing efforts did make a difference.

Especially with web based businesses, websites need time to sink in and to be indexed by the search engines. Sometimes, all it takes is perseverance and faith.

Think Like An Entrepreneur

When failure is cast in a different light, it doesn’t seem so bad right? Instead of listening to the statistics or falling for the negative hype, go in with right attitude and you’ll eventually discover what works.

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13 thoughts on “Stop Thinking You Are Going To Fail Just Because Someone Says You Should”

  1. Heya Steve,

    You’re right about how “failure” has a different meaning when coupled in with the term entrepreneurship.

    Let’s say that one has to get over the fear of failure and just get something done—dare to experiment.

    I used to say that my first joint venture in Jan 2010 was a “failure” only because it received just one enquiry which end up to no sales by the end of the first 2 months.

    How wrong I was.

    This week my friend reported that the site shot up to the top 5 placing in Google and received a handful of orders—so it didn’t end up exactly as I had said.

    Sometimes (actually, it’s a certain that all times) one gotta have a mindset change from thinking of going to fail to “I’m going in cos’ I’m gonna get things done”. That was the mindset that I started this year with. So far that has worked.

    Double true for the perseverance and faith part. It’s a step by step (getting things done) thing to discovering what works, and continue working on the stuff that *really* works. :)

    1. @Daniel
      That’s a great story. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of time before things pick up. I know that was definitely true with our store as it took 6 months for things to explode. Thanks for the comment.

      @Nea
      Yeah. I was just getting tired of hearing it over and over again. Most of all, I don’t like how people say you have to fail before you succeed without ever defining what they meant by failure.

  2. Great article and I totally agree. I don’t even like that word failure. It just sounds like such a permanent negative circumstance. A roadblock doesn’t indicate a failure… just a change in course.

  3. Steve,

    Absolutely refreshing post! Like you, I did not go into business for myself with the mindset that failure as an acceptable outcome. I did go into business because I’m aiming to succeed.

    FAILURE CAN BE GOOD, BUT IT DEPENDS WHAT YOU DO WITH IT
    I understand what the message that many are trying to send is – failure is good because you can learn from your mistakes, but where I part ways with that philosophy is when I hear or read that you have to fail completely to learn something.

    LEARN FAST FROM FAILURES
    Like you, I think the smart and competent entrepreneur is one that can roll with the punches and recover quickly from setbacks and mistakes. Sure a major fail can teach you something if you’re paying attention and have enough wisdom to learn from the failure, but the wiser person is one who can recognize the mistakes early enough and adjust course to head back in the right direction as you’ve clearly done in your own business.

    ALL OR NOTHING MENTALITY IS DANGEROUS
    I hope more people read this and don’t fall for the hype that you should fail fast and hard to learn so you can move on to bigger things. Rather you should learn faster and faster from your failures and develop a skill on how to take corrective action more quickly.

    Business and Entrepreneurship is not a game of all or nothing. Believing the failing fast and hard advice may well lead a lot of entrepreneurs to a self-fulfilling prophesy where they may have otherwise succeeded.

    Well played Steve!

    1. @Xurxo
      Well put! I just don’t want people going into a venture thinking that they will definitely fail just because it is their first time. Anyone who says otherwise is spouting complete BS. You can succeed your first time around if you stick with it and adapt to any obstacles you may encounter.

  4. Great message Steve, I wish they would teach this concept in school rather than teaching the opposite (failure is bad and you should avoid it at all costs)

  5. Imagine a life without a failure! Boring! How can we feel the sweetness of success, without a failure? There will be no excitement of learning!

  6. Brilliant post. Fear of failure often keeps many potential entrepreneurs from achieving their goals. Recognizing that we all fail and it’s part of the process can help business owners overcome their hesitation. Ask many of the most successful people in business today. They all failed in at least one venture. Some multiple times.

  7. Failure rarely fails to provide some lesson for us to grow from.

  8. Fantastic Steve,

    All great points about Failure and what it means in an entrepreneurial sense. as Frank mentioned in his comment, and I just want to echo, failure is the number 1 fear for entrepreneurs.

    It’s the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen that can be down right crippling.

    But you know what? The funny thing about failure is that it’s something that can be tamed.

    Even the most frightened person can tame its grip.

    It’s all about coming to the realization that failure is life’s teaching tool. It’s present so that when we stray from our intended path, we can right the ship.

    The way to beat the fear? Motivation.

    Thanks for sharing the good and the bad Steve,

    Jeremy

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