What two words in the English language couldn’t be further apart in their meaning, but are often intertwined for entrepreneurs? The first word by itself is part of the everyday life of an entrepreneur – and every other person in the world as well. This word is relatively innocuous. But when connected with the second word it’s like adding the primer to dynamite. The resulting explosion can have all sorts of detrimental effects on our lives.
That first word is “failure.” Many entrepreneurs (and others) fear failure. But successful entrepreneurs have almost always experienced failure in different ways and multiple times. They use their failure to recalibrate or pivot, and find a new way to make something work. David H. McConnell was a door-to-door book salesman who offered a little gift of perfume to female customers. Selling the books didn’t work out so well, but there was great demand for the perfume. So McConnell ditched the books and turned the perfume concept into what is now known as Avon. Ever heard of Traf-O-Data? It was a partnership between Bill Gates and Paul Allen for the purpose of developing reports from traffic counters for traffic engineers. Needless to say the business was not a success. But Gates went on to launch another venture called . . . Microsoft. And then there’s the famous story about a man named Fred Smith who wrote a paper for his Yale University economics class involving overnight parcel deliveries. The professor wasn’t impressed and gave him what Smith recalls was a C. Undaunted, Smith pursued the idea which today is known as Federal Express.
This brings us to the second word. The word is toxic to entrepreneurs for it can easily become a mindset. The word . . . “defeat.” Failure is part of a process of experimentation and discovery. Defeat is the end. Once defeat is admitted, there’s nothing more to be done. I knew a man who worked for someone else for several decades. Then he decided to spread his entrepreneurial wings and bought a business. He labored mightily but eventually had to close his doors. But rather than lean into the experience and use it as a stepping stone to success, he withdrew. His confidence was shaken and he began making unhealthy choices. He tried working for someone else again but eventually ended up driving a taxi. Now there’s nothing wrong with driving a taxi if it’s for the right reason. But in this case it was his way of curling up in the fetal position and saying, “I can’t.”
I think that it boils down to whether or not we have a “die trying” mentality. It boils down to whether or not we have a positive image of ourselves. It boils down to moving as fast as we can to kill our own bad ideas so we can make room for the good ones! When we are afraid to fail, we are setting ourselves up for defeat. One of the most important things about failure is making certain that it’s not so monumental that we can’t right our ship. A mindset of defeat occurs when we are convinced we’ve lost it all – forever.
Here’s what I’ve learned. I don’t set out to fail at anything but accept the fact that I will and I must, if only to find the good ideas that work. I always make sure there’s enough of a margin of safety that my failures aren’t going to “kill” me. This leaves room for a pivot or a more significant shift. Regardless of my failures I will always remain positive and optimistic. Sometimes this can be very hard but it’s fundamental to avoiding defeat. When I do fail I look for what can be salvaged from the experience to bolt onto the next iteration of whatever I’m doing. And finally, I know that I’m a step closer to success by eliminating a step in the process that didn’t work.
Failure and defeat are not connected in any way, shape or form. Great opportunity and great success can rise from failure. Nothing good comes from defeat.
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This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.