We failed our way to the top

Navalayo Osembo Ombati: Founder and CEO, Enda (PHOTO: FILE)

NAIROBI, KENYA: A couple of weeks ago, actor Wesley Snipes dropped this pithy yet deep tweet: “Three teachers of life: Heartbreaks. Empty pockets. Failure.”

Any entrepreneur who has been in the game long enough will tell you that at some stage in their entrepreneurial journey, they have been ‘students’ – or even repeated classes – of one or all the teachers mentioned in Snipes’ 57-character missive.

The three teachers may come in rapid or slow succession, or in one fell swoop.

Hustle spoke to four entrepreneurs on the lessons they learnt while under the pupillage of failure.   

Navalayo Osembo-Ombati: Founder and CEO, Enda

Failure in itself is not a bad thing, but the lens with which society understand, views and reacts to it – from my experience – needs to be adjusted.

I, therefore, look at it from the angle of ‘trying’ rather than ‘failing’. I say that because I have a 7-year-old daughter, and I’m teaching her not be afraid of trying new things.

I have tried multiple business ideas – sugarcane farming, wedding consultancy, children’s sports academy, retailing clothes.

I get up after a ‘failure’ by focusing my mindset on the big picture, by reaching out to people within my support system (mostly family and close friends) and by self-will. I believe that God has a plan for my life and he knows it from beginning to end.

My biggest fear in life is reaching the end and wishing there was something I’d have done when I had the chance.

Having travelled the world and been exposed to how sports can transform lives, I wanted to bring the same experience to kids in my rural village in Bungoma. I poured loads of energy and resources into building an academy that would rival any in developed countries. It hasn’t worked out.

It gutted me more than any project I’ve done. Part of me knows I’m not done with it yet. For the time being, I’m concentrating on Enda, which is Kenya’s first home-made running shoe.

Success and failure are not linear. That is, you don’t fail, overcome, use the lessons learnt to turn things around and become a success. It doesn’t always go that way. Success is part opportunity, part preparation.  

Trying different things has taught me that everything is interconnected. For example, starting a sports academy that doesn’t take off can be the foundation of taking you to a place where you meet like-minded people and end up on a totally different business path. This is a true story – it’s how I ended up starting Enda.

There is no wasted opportunity. Everything is interconnected. Your job is to connect the dots.

Jazeera Suwani: Founder, Say it with Chocolate

Say it with Chocolate is not my first business. I have failed too many times to count. But I do not call them failures. I call them learning experiences.

Plus, I cannot really say that I failed, but I was not passionate about what I was doing, because nothing can fail passion. I take these learning experiences as opportunities to do something else – and do it even better.

I get up by remembering my entrepreneurial background. My father was a businessman. He taught me that I should keep trying and never quit till I make it. If one way doesn’t work, then I go to the next plan. He taught me that failure is never an option.

When I encounter a learning experience, I reach out to my mentors. Because one is emotionally invested in their business and can have tunnel vision, it’s advisable to reach out to someone who’s on the outside looking in. Someone who will help you to navigate such experiences and tell you how to go about it in a different way.

Sometimes, after I’ve had a hellish learning experience, I swear, “This is it … I am not going to do this again”. But I am a go-getter. No matter what, I use my grit and guts to get out of this mindset.

I do not let learning experiences get me down. I do not take them personally; it’s just business. I come up with two or three different solutions so that, if one doesn’t work, I go to the next solution.

I am emotional, but I have learnt to respond to learning experiences instead of reacting to them. I have also taught myself to calm down when something comes up, and not act immediately.

If there is a problem, I take time to think about it. I ask myself if it’s really a problem or if I’m creating a problem. Some problems are created in our minds. I’m learning to be more practical and less emotional.

June Syowia: CEO, Beiless Group

Initially, I wanted to do mobile advertising on public service vehicles. In 2015, I took one month to research. There was only one company that was doing this, and the niche factor was a thrill.

Long story short? We sent 51 unanswered emails, made countless cold calls and pitches but nothing happened. Two clients and three months later, I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t hack it.

I get up after failure by working hard. I fail my way to the top. Does that make sense? I flip the failure script to my benefit by learning from it. I celebrate small wins because beating yourself up every time you fail can result in stalling.

Besides, I have a great support system and mentors who always come through when it’s one of those days.

When I failed when I was 19 years old, I remember saying, “I’m too young for this kind of stress. I can’t do this anymore.”

I went into a slump. Then I heard this podcast which asked why I do what I do. Was I in it for quick wins or was it to solve a problem that I was passionate about? That was it. I went back to the core of my purpose and realised that no matter how hard it was, passion is what drove me.

I harness failure and turn it into success by always reminding myself of my ‘why’. When my first business failed, I knew what I wanted to do: grow companies from one level to the next through innovation. I also wanted to be in a sector where I was not limited.

I attended a Google digital marketing master class, I rebranded and started what is today Beiless Group Ltd, a lead generation digital agency that has worked with 53 different brands.

What failure has taught me about problem-solving skills is that I have to be strategic and analytical when solving problems. Never let emotions get in the way. Be flexible when dealing with issues and exhaust all options until you get a solution.

Martin Nielsen: co-founder and CEO, Mdundo

In business, ‘failure’ is a hyped concept. I’m actually not a big fan of it. If you are truly passionate about your area of business, without any greed, and you treat your employees, partners and other stakeholders with respect, you will succeed.

Failure is not an option if you believe in the dream, have the right people with you and give them what they deserve. When I face challenges, I go to my team and the Mdundo board of directors. The team gives me a good perspective from the outside.

I’ve become very good at looking at opportunities ahead instead of the challenges behind. It’s my job to have ideas, plans and a ‘way forward’.

If the original plan doesn’t work, we just have to change it and make a new plan. I rarely think too much about something that didn’t work. I think more about our remaining options.

I harness failure and turn it into a success by going back to the drawing board. If the product we’re offering doesn’t sell, then we need to change something about it until it does. It’s not a failure. It’s learning and recalibrating.

When we started Mdundo, we were selling songs through M-Pesa. It’s a misunderstanding that people don’t want to pay for music. However, they don’t want to pay for one song because they don’t listen to one song. That’s why we implemented a fixed fee, which allows users to download everything they like.

If you feel like you are failing, then you’re not solving the problem. Problem-solving is much more about the options you have looking forward, and not about your failures looking backwards.

I think many CEOs focus too much on the challenges and the aspects of their business that are not working and too little on their options looking forward.

You always have a choice. You always have options. And only by considering the options you have, influenced by the history of the business, will you find a solution.

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