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Four lessons from failing in business

By Pauline Muindi | December 6th 2020 at 09:00:00 GMT +0300

Did you know that it took Thomas Edison thousands of unsuccessful attempts before inventing the light bulb? Edison had a surprisingly positive perspective about his failure rate. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” he told an associate.

To be successful in business and life, you have to adopt a similar attitude towards success and failure. Many people get discouraged by failure, seeing it as a negative. But with the right attitude, you can learn, evolve, and grow from your past mistakes.

Failure is common in business. In fact, nine out of ten start-ups will fail. But these statistics shouldn’t discourage you from trying. With that in mind, here are key lessons to learn from failure:

Don’t play the blame game

Failure can deal a big blow to your ego. It is difficult to accept that you were wrong or your efforts fell short. Many people deflect by shifting the blame to someone or something else. They might blame the economy, the city they live in, and even their spouse or family issues.

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While external factors do play a role in business failure, as a leader you should take responsibility. After all, yours wasn’t the only business that was affected by such issues. What made the others survive and thrive while yours floundered? When you can accept the responsibility, your mind becomes open to finding solutions.

However, don’t beat yourself up. Once you have accepted responsibility, it is time to seek the lessons from the experience. Just because you failed doesn’t mean you aren’t destined for success.

Remember that Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs was fired from his own company. He was devastated by this failure but it also spurred him to re-examine his leadership style. When he later returned to Apple, he had learned to be a more patient leader, which helped steer the company to even greater success.

“Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life,” Jobs said. Just like Jobs, learn to own failure so as to learn and grow from it.

Pivot failure into growth

Another lesson you can learn from Steve Job’s story is to stay nimble after failure. After being fired form Apple, Jobs went on to found NeXT, a computer platform development company for the higher end and business markets. The following year, he acquired a computer graphics division of Lucasfilm that went on to become Pixar. NeXT opened up the door for Jobs to return to Apple.

Businesses which have pivoted from failure to growth include Twitter, YouTube, Yelp and PayPal. When you feel discouraged after failure, remember that you too can turn things around. Sometimes, success will come through making fundamental changes in your business.

When you fail, take time to think about what you could do differently. Should you change your business strategy? How about going for a different business idea? Failure gives you the opportunity to critically examine your business and develop new approaches to tackling obstacles.

Don’t double down

Talk to any experienced investor and they’ll tell you one thing: never double down on a bad investment. Resist the urge to throw money at the problem and hope that it will go away. Relaunching even bigger and better isn’t likely to work.

Even ideas that were once successful might lose traction in the market due to forces out of your control. For example, Kodak which was once a giant in photography failed spectacularly for sticking to analogue photography when the world was going digital.

Another case study to look at is Nokia. Their failure is largely attributed to the company continuing to invest in their proprietary operating system, even as Android and iOS were dominating the market.

In management literature, holding onto a strategy that was once successful is often referred to as escalation of commitment.

Research has shown that people are likely to stick to an existing course of action, no matter how irrational. There are various reasons for this which include the cost fallacy, loss aversion, the illusion of control and being personally identified with the failing project.

But truly great entrepreneurs know that being too passionate or too attached to a business idea is recipe for disaster. You must be willing to let go when an idea proves to be a dud. You will have better luck looking elsewhere but staying within your strengths.

Locate the weak link

In business, just like elsewhere, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. A weak link can mean the difference between winning and losing customers and revenue. A business might have great products or services but fail due to poor customer service or an inadequate marketing campaign.

When your business is failing, create a checklist to test which aspects are the weakest links. Areas to include in your checklists are company culture, management, sales and marketing, technology and the customers.

Ask yourself some questions. Are your employees excited to come to work? Is your management team rowing the boat in the right direction? Does your sales and marketing team capitalise on your unique selling proposition? Do you have good customer service? Are you adopting the right technology to benefit your business? Are you meeting the customers’ needs?

Asking yourself these questions and answering them honestly will provide you with useful information on whether you should scrap the entire business idea and start with a new one or make changes to strengthen the weak links.

Remember, business is a never-ending cycle of optimisation and tweaking. To learn and grow from failure, be ready to embrace constant change.


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