Learn How to Embrace Failure and Make Your Startup Thrive
In the start-up world we often hear phrases like “fail fast”, and “celebrate failure”, and that failure can be “the best thing that ever happened”.
But let’s be honest: failuresucks.
At the very moment “the failure” hits you, often the last thing you’re thinking about are the positive takeaways, let alone documenting the failure: your heart is pumping faster, your face and ears getting hotter, your legs get weaker to the point you momentarily question if they can even support your weight.
Failure can be a wrenching feeling. Thoughts and memories of everything you have risked on this venture, and all the promises you have made on the hope of its success come flooding through your mind, bringing with them intense feelings of pain, hurt, loss, anger, vengefulness, embarrassment…anything but logic or rationality.
Whether we call them setback’s, failures, or use language perhaps not acceptable on this platform, I’ve certainly had many of them.
However, time does heal, and reflection will heighten your perspective. That’s not to say the pain ever fully goes away, but that the value of the lessons learned because of that pain increasingly outweighs that initial emotion over time. This value becomes apparent in the new found clarity and focus — plus a touch of the confidence that experience brings — with which you take on another approach or venture in the future.
But while the initial high of success and winning may be euphoric, there is little long-term learning that comes from it.
The emotional reaction to a loss, however, with perspective and hindsight, are far more instructive. You want to understand why you failed, and successful entrepreneurs will doggedly delve as deeply as it takes to understand “why” to ensure their next steps add way beyond the value of a win.
“If, one day, you look in the mirror and see only success, know that you have in fact learned nothing, any humility has evaporated, and greater failure is on the way.”
My first startup, for instance, remains my greatest pride (including my biggest fund raising), prematurely ended due to a Board “disagreement” that cost 18 months of my life in the courts and millions of dollars in legal fees (ultimately to the other party as my Co-Founder and I eventually won). And that was just the physical experience: to this day it still hurts but it has been the source of some of my greatest, and most valuable lessons.
The Topic of Failure
A lot has been written on the topic of failure, and several studies (e.g., CBI Insights) have pinpointed the top three root causes of startup failure being product-market-fit, running out of cash and disharmony in the team.
When we look at ‘failure’ from a distance, it is easy to romanticise and sugarcoat it with inspiring quotes about the struggles entrepreneurs and scientists, such as Walt Disney or Thomas Edison, who had to go through several failures before reaching success.
But what does failure actually feel like for entrepreneurs, especially in an African context? How did they manage it, and how did they bounce back?
To look at this both broadly and with an African lens, my team held a virtual event with seasoned and serial entrepreneurs who have experienced successes and failures firsthand, with ventures spanning Ghana, Kenya, USA, UK, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.
We dived deep into failure as a potential fast track for finding purpose and success while providing some practical advice on how to manage failure, especially when it comes to losing people’s trust and money.
Accept failure, positively, as part of the entrepreneurial journey
We need to challenge the way in which we think about failure. It is not something we can control, but is part of the process of becoming a successful entrepreneur, not a deviation from what you think you’re supposed to be doing, or the pathway you expected to follow.
“By default, you’re meant to fail to get where you need to be and, by default, it allows you to reprogram your mindset and get ready for it. Don’t shy away or avoid it but get through that as quickly as possible.”– Samuel Baddoo, Founder, Fleri
That means the failure of a startup or project does not equate to personal failure, but might, in fact, be propelling you to your next personal growth phase.
The “Founder First” principle, ie. “great companies start with great people, not great ideas.” Is what makes a great entrepreneur, not just your successes but also your expertise built over years of trial, error, success and many failures.
This is the reason why Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are increasingly talking about ‘celebrating failure’, because it is inherently linked with expertise. This is true in business as much as in any other discipline. Like physicist Niels Bohr once said, while studying the structure of atoms:
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”
Failure is part of any journey, and is arguably what makes it worthwhile, exciting and interesting, just like a Titanic movie without an iceberg would be as boring as watching a cruise ship cross the Atlantic. A mindset shift around failure is an essential starting point, but how can we prepare ourselves for the time when we hit that iceberg and the cruise ship starts to sink?
Marco Rovagnati, Innovation Consultant, and Founder of Poa Poa Soaps, talked about the importance of setting up guardrails and intentionally designing functions in your organisation that allow you to experiment with failure, shifting the narrative from failure to prototyping.
“After launching several businesses and at least half a dozen pivots,” he said, “I think about failure in two buckets: avoid it at all cost and actively embrace it.”
In the first bucket is things to “avoid at all cost”: those efforts that have been tried and tested, and that you can teach yourself online (which can be immensely time-consuming) or with fast-track, sprint programmes like Founder Institute. admin, operations, customer support, digital marketing — those are “basic hygiene” factors in business that are (relatively) easy to get right because they deal with the tangible management of the present. How to go about this is down to you, your team, and company culture.
In the second bucket — actively embrace failure — are all the future-focused activities, such as new product development, prototyping and testing new features, finding your next expansion opportunity or underserved niche, launching Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) and finding product market fit. This is, by nature, a process of trial and error and it is essential that the ‘error’ or ‘failure’ part of the process is not interpreted as ‘defeat’.
Make sure you have the right language and frameworks in your organisation to track and manage those processes and make sure you extract all the lessons from each test that you run.
“Failure is not static, it’s an opportunity to learn, build and map out the way forward.
It’s a set of data that you collect as you go on.”
African culture can often be less experimental and unforgiving, but that shouldn’t make you operate from a place of fear.
Nana Prempeh from GrowForMe — FI Ghana graduate and in the Top 50 of Google for Startups Black Founders Fund — reminded us that yes, mindset matters, but failing in Africa often hits you even harder. Resources (cash, support, trusted partners) are scarce, and Ghanaian culture, for example, tends to be majorly conservative and less open to taking risks.
That is one of the reasons why you’d usually find multiple chain stores selling the same products, barely a few feet away from each other. “If it worked for Kofi, it would work for me,” goes the logic behind this approach.
Startups, however, require innovation, dogged determination, brutally honest feedback, risk-taking and enough faith to put it all on the line, as well as a systemic shift from being a trader (lower risk traditional business models) to being an entrepreneur (new frontier businesses). You need to ‘keep it real, all the time” Nana went on to say.
It’s no secret that entrepreneurship is not for everyone, and that opportunities are not distributed equally across the world, but it is imperative that we don’t allow ourselves to operate from a place of fear, especially when looking at the extremal obstacles linked to our operating environment.
For example, African startups are less served by outsourcing infrastructure, and tend to have a culture less open and tolerant of failure, especially when capital from friends and family is involved.
Fear of failing kills more businesses than failure itself.
Abandon fear and embrace knowledge, read the theory and case studies around your industry, reach out to experts and mentors and critically assess how everything you learn applies to your specific circumstance.
Critical thinking is probably one of the most underrated skills of an entrepreneur. This is the ability to read an article, attend an event or have a conversation, yet remain aware that what you hear or read is the experience of an individual at a specific point in time — which may or may not apply to your circumstance — and being selective about what you take on and apply.
The reality on the continent is different. You should read the mainstream narrative (e.g. Techcrunch, Entrepreneur, Forbes, etc.) but take it with a pinch of salt. You have to analyse it in context.
This is not a quick fix but if you’re driven by passion, you will have (or find) the time. Read a lot and study the environment. Don’t go in with fear but don’t go in blind as well. This is learned from experience, which is again a reminder and a great way to sum things up, that
“If your failure is not a lesson, it’s indeed a failure.”
The best way to discover if something is worth pursuing is to try. Accept that along the pathway of this pursuit, there’ll be stumbles. We are taught is kids that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
“You’ll never ever know if you never have a go.”
And of course when we try again, given we’ve learned a lesson of how not to do something, we take the lesson on the chin, count on muscle memory doing its job, and we approach the same thing slightly differently next time.
Afterall, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.
The global pandemic has clearly shown that pain happens when you’re not expecting it, whether you deserve it or not, whether you’re a kind or unfriendly person. Take confidence that as an entrepreneur you can learn, you can overcome things, you can be resilient, and ultimately you can live to fight another day.