Five Lessons Learned From Failing In Business
Once upon a time, I stood in an audience listening to a soon-to-be-friend of mine, Jason Seiden, announce his newest book, Fail Spectacularly. As I listened to all the stories of missing by a mile or focusing on the wrong thing at the expense of a job, company or even a relationship, I was happy for him and interested in the premise, but didn’t really think it applied to me. After all, I was in my mid-twenties and had turned a failure of a company into something that resembles my career today. It was a post-pivotal moment and I felt pretty good about it.
And then everything exploded: The failure I thought I’d parlayed into two new companies (supported by a full-time job) was not sustainable with three young kids and travel. The failure took a toll on my marriage, my new companies and my friendships. While I “Tarzaned” from gig to gig — from travel back to recruiting and HR and making sure my family never went hungry, I didn’t feel like a success. I felt like a survivor, which is not always the best.
Today, I have a wonderful, modest, ethical and good agency that is growing in all the right ways. When I started it, my confidence was not high, my expectations were extremely low and an agency really wasn’t what I wanted to do. What I learned along the way was more valuable than our revenue numbers, employee count or the awards we win. Here are some of those lessons:
This has been the hardest lesson for me. I had a chip on my shoulder about how smart I was, how experienced I was and how other people were getting opportunities I should have gotten. Learning to be humble has helped ease that — somewhat. (Competition is in my blood after growing up with four sisters.) And it’s given me the ability to ask for help: That’s a crucial skill when up to 90% of startups fail, and of the ones that do, those with only one founder (AKA me when I started) are most likely. I beat the odds but that doesn’t make me smarter; it makes me lucky.
Humble leaders are more effective because they’re genuinely liked. And while being liked isn’t always important for production, it’s important for engagement. And, as we know, engagement of your workforce is crucial to improving performance. Admit your mistakes, be approachable, and showcase employee strengths to contribute to organizational growth.
Past mistakes are expensive lessons.
In my last failure, there were lots of contributing factors — poor communication due to distance, lack of humility (me again) and lack of a product (not me). At my company now, I take those lessons to heart with my employees, my clients and the products I choose to work on. Why? Because I paid for them. Just like higher education, failing at a startup, a job or a business relationship is education you pay for with the most finite of resources: time.
Mistakes give leaders anecdotes to inspire change in teams. They set an example that encourages employees to be resilient and accountable for mistakes, and they show your workforce that you are, in fact, human. The next time an employee makes a mistake, share a time when you solved a similar issue instead of reprimanding them.
Not every idea is a good idea.
Not only was this a difficult lesson to learn for myself, it’s also difficult to help my team learn. It’s important to know this and to keep it top of mind. For every amazing idea, there will likely be 10 bad ones, and as a leader, you have to focus on the ideas that have the best chance of working and those that align with your goals. If you try to snag every idea you come up with, you will find yourself depleted of energy and resources, and your customers will be upset at the lack of focus. According to a survey, over 80% of 300 small business owners don’t track their business goals.
Start a document that’s available via mobile to track ideas and goals. Evernote and Google Drive are great tools because they can be accessed anywhere except the shower (but don’t worry, you can jot down ideas in the shower now, too, with Aqua Notes). Writing down ideas and goals gives you an 80% higher chance of achieving them and will help you organize all ideas so the best ones can be prioritized.
You can’t help everyone.
When you have a passion for something (mine is locating the business or revenue model at the heart of an idea), you want to share that gift. When you do, people begin to devalue it. If someone can’t afford to pay you, unless it’s a really great cause, you need to let them tackle business needs alone. Why take on their business issues when you have your own?
In a Tiny Buddha article, Annika Martins writes, “Share your talents and resources. Generously give your time and attention. But you cannot pour a magical tonic on the wounds of every person walking the planet. It’s not your job. And if it were, it’d be a sucky job because you’d fail at it every single day.”
You will have your own business issues.
Just because you’ve failed once (or many times) doesn’t mean you’ve learned every lesson there is. You’re going to continue to fail, incrementally, as long as you’re in business (Google Wave, anyone?). These lessons aren’t abject failures, so you cannot throw your arms up and walk away. Sometimes you have to work through them — that’s the most important lesson of all. Learn to communicate with struggling employees, how to handle difficult clients or when to confront partners who are trying to swindle you. The most important part of success is learning to identify failure and turn it into a win.
About Maren Hogan:
Maren Hogan is a seasoned marketer, writer and business builder in the HR and Recruiting industry. Founder and CEO of Red Branch Media, an agency offering marketing strategy and outsourcing and thought leadership to HR and Recruiting Technology and Services organizations internationally, Hogan is a consistent advocate of next generation marketing techniques. She has built successful online communities, deployed brand strategies and been a thought leader in the global recruitment and talent space. You can read more of her work on Forbes, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, and her blog Marenated.