When it comes to business, Mark Coopersmith has seen everything from flashes in the pan to flashes of greatness. Over the years, he has launched, built, and led high-growth organizations ranging from startups to global enterprises. Today, he’s an entrepreneur, educator, advisor to executives, and co-author of the acclaimed book, “The Other ‘F’ Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work.”
Coopersmith, the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center’s first Author-in-Residence, sat down with us to discuss what he’s learned from his multi-faceted career — particularly the challenges facing entrepreneurs today and the importance of embracing failure:
You’ve launched, built, and led businesses of all sizes. What lessons about growing a business have you learned that are universal?
First, when it comes to launching ventures, I think entrepreneurs should focus on the intersection of three elements: your passions, your areas of expertise, and where you see significant market opportunity. For me, these components are the essential ingredients that need to come together.
Second, surround yourself with a diverse group of the smartest people who have skills and perspectives that complement yours. It’s important to create a culture and build relationships that will help ensure you really enjoy working together and perform at the highest levels.
Third, make sure that the solution(s) you develop truly are better than the current options — that you improve the experience and value for your customers in a way that’s better than anything else out there, and especially better than the status quo.
How is the environment for launching a business different today than it was 10–15 years ago?
It’s never been easier than it is right now to launch a new venture or business. Massive amounts of industry, customer, and competitor data are available with just a few mouse clicks. Open-source software and a huge range of technology solutions can easily be accessed, avoiding the need for significant upfront capital or development time. Flexible staffing arrangements — both local and from around the world — allow entrepreneurs to redefine how they recruit, pay, and lead their teams. There’s no shortage of fuel to launch a new venture.
That said, I also believe it has never been harder to break free from this increasingly crowded and fast-moving community of startups and competitors to become successful. The current landscape democratizes access to information, resources, and markets, providing your competitors with those same benefits. While early-stage capital is more readily available, access to capital in later stages continues to be limited. Customers are increasingly well-educated, cautious, and often cynical.
You talk about failure as an asset. Could you describe what you mean?
Entrepreneurs seek out and pursue new opportunities. In many cases, the reasons that these opportunities exist in the first place is because the incumbent players, often large enterprises, failed to effectively address the needs of their customers, or see market shifts, or identify new and emerging opportunities
Second, in their pursuit of new opportunities, startups and entrepreneurs will often fail many times before they find that elusive product/market fit or a viable business model. As we know, startups are not permanent establishments; rather, they’re temporary entities in search of a scalable business. It’s the successful entrepreneur who learns from these real-time experiments — both successes and failures — and ultimately finds the essential combination that enables him or her to create a truly valuable enterprise.
Another word that gets thrown around a lot is “innovate.” What does it mean for an entrepreneur to be truly innovative?
At the risk of offending entrepreneurs, I find that many of them are just not as innovative as they think they are.
My definition of innovation is developing a new and better way to do something, that then drives something else that matters (products, business models, markets), and creates measurable value. Combine that with an entrepreneur who has a bias to action and builds new businesses, and you have something truly exceptional.
Knowing what you know now, what entrepreneurial advice would you give your younger self?
I would focus more on values. I’d advise my younger self to better understand, investigate and pursue those broader societal and environmental values that are most important to me.
I would also urge myself to be more innately curious and inquisitive, to learn a little bit more every day. Today, I consume more information about more topics more voraciously than I did years ago. There are so many insights to be gained via in-depth discussions with friends, customers, partners, and colleagues.
Finally, provide regular opportunities for you and your team to acknowledge accomplishments, appreciate milestones, share credit, create an environment of respect and trust. And be sure to have some fun along the way!
Join the conversation with Mark Coopersmith at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center’s upcoming Thirsty Thursday happy hour event, The Other “F” Word: 7 Ways You Can Put Failure to Work, on Thursday, November 12th at 5pm. We look forward to seeing you @theCenter.
The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center is a San Francisco-based non-profit that provides aspiring and current entrepreneurs with access to quality resources, including mentors, training, and networking.