You’ve heard a lot about failure.
There must be at least one blog or article a day extolling the virtues of failure in an entrepreneurial business. Entrepreneurs saying they love failure.
Really? No one loves failure. What entrepreneurs love is experimenting, tinkering, tweaking – discovering. If you are an entrepreneur, discovery is at the core of who you are.
From the outside world, it probably seems that people like you and I love failure, or even high- risk ventures, that we don’t get discouraged at products that flop or companies that fold. You and I know that’s not true.
Many entrepreneurs are high achievers and really hate failure – that is why they keep going. They’ll keep working and trying and iterating until they know the product is right, and they keep working. Don’t forget it took Thomas Edison 9000 experiments to discover a working light bulb.
Entrepreneurial researchers have long debated whether entrepreneurs are different than others in the way they perceive and respond to risks.1 I think entrepreneurs are just as risk adverse as the next person. Great entrepreneurs do reframe problems and challenge the status quo. It is this mental process that enables you to discover new solutions to problems, that is new opportunities. This is actually a risk reduction strategy. This is hard work, so entrepreneurs don’t confuse failure with quitting – that is the key difference.
In an August 6, 2011 op-ed piece in the NY Times Peter Sims author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, points out the difference between failure and discovery with Howard Schultz the founder of Starbucks. He talks about how Schultz’ early shops turned off customers with non-stop opera and menus in Italian. If Schultz had run out of money then and folded up his operation, that would have been a failure. But what he did was continue to experiment – with employee uniforms, menus, music, chairs – until the formula became successful. (How would I find a cup of coffee and connect my laptop in Manhattan if he gave up!)
There is a curiosity in an entrepreneur that makes him want to try a new way. Let’s do a little more this. Let’s try from a new perspective. The problem, as Sims points out, is that this kind of experimentation isn’t encouraged in most workplaces. In fact, “mistakes” are usually punished. Who wants to try something new when the risk is punishment?
The workplace is as linear as the schools we grew up in, and yet the world, and the problems entrepreneurs want to solve are non-linear. From that linear point of view it looks like the startups of the world are foolish failure lovers instead of innovators.
Early in my career, I worked for AT&T and the company was critical to my professional success. The company had many product innovations. Nevertheless, the company often did not capitalize on those ideas. I recall suggesting a new business model for a new product without my boss’s approval. In my annual review, I got “smacked” for not being a team player. Got the message, don’t experiment with new business ideas. I left AT&T and went to work for Silicon Valley start-up, Ascend Communications.
Experimentation leads to discovery and need to be used on all aspects of an entrepreneurial business.
How do you use this perspective to be a better entrepreneur? Acknowledge no one actually likes failure.
Because failure is ego crushing we naturally want to avoid it, and this can keep us from pushing through a new idea. If you use the experiment and discovery model it helps you fake out your ego and keeps it out of the way freeing you up to discover the unmet need. That’s the first job of an entrepreneur.
You never have perfect information as an entrepreneur. I like how Simon et al put it in the scholarly article on risk perception. “Decision-making in entrepreneurial settings often leads to various degrees of error or misjudgments due to the simple fact that the information available is either incomplete or ambiguous.”
It’s then not a question of if a failure will occur, but when.
In fact, the act of failing can is a signal to take notice and adjust your approach. I learned this from Rita McGrath in her book The Entrepreneurial Mindset: Strategies for Continuously Creating Opportunity in an Age of Uncertainty. “Seen in this light, failure is just a temporary phase in an ongoing entrepreneurial process, which can be used as a valuable source of learning and improved self-awareness.”
The experiment and discovery model can help you not take failure personally.
Experiment and discovery reduces uncertainty and expands the search for new business opportunities. You can practice the model like this:
Continually test your goals and assumptions.
Look for inefficiencies and weaknesses in your product.
Continually incorporate negative discoveries into next steps
And tell yourself, this is one long experiment, the outcome of which will always lead to a discovery. And that is never a failure.
 “BEYOND RISK PROPENSITY – THE INFLUENCE OF EVALUATION PERIOD AND INFORMATION RELEVANCE ON RISK TAKING BEHAVIOR’ Academy of Entrepreneurship Journal 18.1 (2012: 1-19, Zheng, Prislin
 McGrath, R.G., & I. MacMillan. (2000) The Entrepreneurial Mindset. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Photo by The Open University