If I taught a college course in entrepreneurship, I’d teach “Failure 101”.
The very first thing I’d do, before we reviewed the syllabus, or told my students what I was gonna teach them, I’d make everyone take a short, pop quiz in something impossibly difficult and tangential like abstract math, or nuclear engineering.
After everyone handed in their tests, I’d announce that everyone in the class got an “F” for no reason at all, without even looking the tests.
When howls of protest subsided, I’d tell them: “Failure’s a given. Coming up against your limits is a given. Making mistakes is a given.”
It’s not a question of “if”, but “when” it’s going to happen. The important thing is: “how quickly, and how vigorously do you bounce back?”
Then I’d give my students a chance to redeem themselves: “Do something. Do anything. It happens. Deal with it.”
Entrepreneurship mimics life
You see, many people don’t get to choose their fate. Rich or poor, their life is handed to them. And their circumstances — good or bad — dictate their fate. Others make mistakes. And their mistakes end up killing them. Still others — the lucky ones — accept their circumstances, they make mistakes, and they learn from them. They make the most of their mistakes, and somehow they’re unfazed.
Sometimes the huge failure becomes the launching point that helps them reach a whole new level.
These are the real entrepreneurs. Somehow they pick themselves up, and move on to bigger and better things.
The best laid plans
I didn’t intentionally set out to screw up my life. In the end, I did screw it up. Or my plans got royally screwed up.
Let me explain. I’ve been self-employed marketing consultant for 10+ years, an outsourced marketing manager for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Four years ago, I was attempting to move beyond the value-based fee-for-service model that I learned from Alan Weiss to a hybrid discounted fee + commission structure.
My simple idea was to work closely with top management of small businesses, and select early-stage ventures, to accelerate time to market, and create internal cash flows–to produce profitability faster and reduce or eliminate the need for owner’s capital to fund growth.
The future was bright
Very long story short: I found a client, invested an enormous amount of time and money in their project. I put 3 years of my life and put everything I had into building a brand, became a member of the company, and took an idea from a concept to a ‘going concern’.
Essentially, I built a business from scratch, and once it was a going, the deal with the client was that they were going to pay me a base plus commission. The plan was onwards & upwards!
The future never came
The problem? I neglected to get a good contract. While I was eager to please, I never got beyond a verbal agreement. To make things worse, there was a shakeup at the board-level, and they bundled up the division I created, and gave it to someone else to manage.
It was a bitter lesson.
“I should have known these guys were trouble,” I said to myself. “I made a huge mistake. Boy, did I chose the wrong people to work with!”
Ouch! It hurt!
To survive, I had to pick myself up and move on. I searched and searched for answers. “Why did this happen to me?” I asked myself. “I must be a colossal failure in business and life,” beating myself up. “Loser!”
Somehow while I was moping around feeling sorry for myself, searching for inspiration to shore up my flagging spirits, I stumbled across an article on Huffington Post written by Stephenie Zamora entitled: “Why Setting Goals Doesn’t Work.”
At the bottom of her article, she has an offer to download her free guide, “The Unexpected Trick to Transforming Your Life With ONE Single Question.”
The turning point
Spoiler alert: I’m revealing Stephenie’s brilliant trick below. I’m sharing it because it really helped me at this lowest point of my life. If you feel like you’re stuck or in a rut, it’s a very worthwhile download. My hat’s off to Stephenie! She’s truly a beautiful person.
Now…, you must understand… that despite what happened–getting thrown under the bus, feeling like my life was going to end, feeling like the biggest loser in the world, not knowing which end was up, not knowing whether I was coming or going–I never really considered myself a ‘victim’.
I realize now, though, that I was carrying victimhood around with me. It enveloped me like a cloud. It permeated my being.
There was a precise moment in time when I snapped out of it. Per Stephenie’s instructions, I took a deep breath and become fully present in the moment, and then I visualized the situation that was causing my distress. Then I took a step back and try to look at the situation from a new perspective. I detached myself completely, and looked at myself “as if I was watching myself on television”, “without judging”, and I asked myself the question:
“What did I do to allow this situation to happen?”
The result for me was miraculous and almost instantaneous. I was so bound up in my mistake and my misery that I was unable to look at the situation objectively.
The first thing I did was to stop beating up on myself. Once I stopped waging war on my own spirit, I became somewhat sympathetic with my plight. Then I was able to see how I was not taking responsibility for some fundamental things were blocking my progress.
This caused a seismic shift in my consciousness. It helped me be kinder to myself. And it helped me take action to move forward.
The process of recovering from a catastrophic business failure has not been a straight line. I’ve had some serious ups & downs. But things are trending upwards. It started with willingness to take responsibility. And I’m grateful for friends who’ve reached out to help me along the way.
I see now that I had personally invested too much of myself in the project. I wanted that project to be the one that put me on the map. I wanted it too much. I put all my eggs in one basket. At the same time, I had neglected my own business, my own network. Like the cobbler’s son who goes without shoes, I hadn’t built my own inbound marketing systems, so that I’d have a fresh supply of clients whenever I needed them.
A little humility helps…
The process of overcoming this failure has led me to a new outlook on how my arrogance was keeping me from being truly humble. Somehow I had overlooked John Maxwell who said:
“There are two types of pride: good and bad. ‘Good pride’ represents our dignity and self-respect. ‘Bad pride’ is the deadly sin of superiority that reeks of conceit and arrogance.”
The truth is that I was guilty of bad pride. I was conceited and arrogant. I thought I was going to have it made. I was certain that this project was going to make me a millionaire. And I was attached to an outcome that never came to pass. As a result, I was stuck.
As a part of this process of discernment and taking responsibility, I had to learn to be humble enough to ask myself: “What did I do to allow this situation to happen?”
As I have learned, there are layers of taking responsibility. The first layer was admitting to myself that I’d made a mistake. The second was forgiving my erstwhile partners (for they know not what they did). The real breakthrough occurred when I was able to discern and take responsibility for my part in the situation.
I didn’t establish clear boundaries. I didn’t insist on an agreement that could leave no doubt. I failed to see warning signs because I thought they were my friends, and I had my blinders on. The bottom line is that I neglected my own business for what was essentially someone else’s business–shame on me!
Through this prism of humility, I am finally able to stand back and be proud of my accomplishment. I am able to regain my dignity and self-respect — the “good” pride — knowing that I’ve demonstrated that I have the knowledge, skills, and the disposition to take an idea from scratch and turn it into something.
Not everyone can do that.
I didn’t use a formal business plan to create the business. I intuitively used the lean startup methodology, like the one advocated by Eric Ries and Steve Blank. And I used inbound marketing to create an established business in a relatively short period of time.
What have I learned?
It really doesn’t matter that they took it.
If you look at the story of Job, he lost it all. But in the end, he remained faithful, and everything he lost was restored to him twenty-one fold.
It’s important remain faithful and true to your purpose–to trust in the process.
Fail. And fail again.
Just keep failing.
If at first you don’t fail, try and try again. Until you fail.
I built a business from scratch once, and I’ll do it again.
Next time I’ll do it faster.
And I’ll do it better.
For sure, I’ll fail many times before I succeed.
Note: If you’re interested in learning more about lean startup, Udacity has a great course called “How To Build A Startup” by Steve Blank. It’s free! Amazing!
A consoling thought
So that’s my story about ‘Failure 101’. I hope you find some insights, or consolation, or encouragement–or whatever.
Some people don’t have a choice. Others take their mistakes to the grave with them.
Others — like me — are the lucky ones. We get to get up, dust ourselves off, and say: “Next?”
Like the students in my hypothetical entrepreneurship class, I got a big fat “F”.
And you know what? I’m proud of that “F”.
I didn’t deserve it. But it happens.
You take responsibility. And you move on.
Like Roseanne Rosannadanna said, “It’s always something!”
I’m just grateful to see another day.
To make a little ruckus.
To ship a little encouragement.
To offer ideas that might help.
I’ve taken responsibility for my part in the situation, and I am moving on.
What about you? Have you ever failed? Been screwed over? How did you recover?