Entrepreneurs fall on their faces a lot, especially when they're first starting out, and early failures are just as much a part of the stories of legendary entrepreneurs as they are of those whose names you've never heard. Speaking of names that don't ring a bell, have you ever heard of Traf-O-Data? According to a really interesting article at grasshopper.com that you can read here, that's the name of the first company launched by Bill Gates and his partners. Their goal was to sell computerized data to state and local governments, but the company failed because the product had too many bugs. Grasshopper.com also reports that the man we know of as Colonel Sanders drove around with his secret spice recipe in his car looking for partners and had over 1,000 doors slammed in his face before he found a restaurant willing to take a chance on him. As for Henry Ford, according to Newsweek, his first enterprise--Detroit Automobile Company--went belly up in 1901, "amid customer complaints of high prices and low quality". The following year, he abandoned a second venture due to a dust-up with his partner, and a third company nearly tanked due to low sales numbers.
I love hearing stories like these. They never fail to inspire and comfort me. When you get to know entrepreneurs, you hear them all the time. Actually, I'd be worried if I didn't hear stories of early failure from an entrepreneur, because if that person isn't failing, he or she simply isn't trying hard enough. Or risking and learning.
I also love the story Spanx founder Sara Blakely (a.k.a. the youngest female self-made billionaire in history) tells about how she learned from a very young age to think about failure as a positive. She says that when she was a kid, her dad would ask each of his children at dinner every night what they'd failed at that day. If no one had any failures to report, he'd express disappointment. Sara took from that lesson that failure wasn't anything to be ashamed of; rather, if she failed at something, it meant she'd pushed herself into unfamiliar territory; if she didn't, it meant she hadn't stretched far enough beyond her comfort zone that day.
Many people spout clichés about the lessons they've learned from failure, but I think those of us who possess an entrepreneurial mindset actually think about failure in an entirely different way than the general population. For one thing, I think we have or as Sara Blakely did, we learn to develop, a kind of built-in invisible shield that prevents us from internalizing failure as a reflection of our self-worth. I'm talking about the capacity to step back from failure and look at it more objectively, less as the sum total of who we are in the world and more as simply one isolated situation where various variables came into play that had little to do with us as individuals, but from which we could learn.
I think that's the main reason most successful entrepreneurs I know of are actually happy to talk about their failures, rather than scrambling to sweep them under the rug. Unlike many people, we view failing as a badge of honour because it shows we're unafraid to try something others would be too terrified to risk. We know in our bones that if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, as in life, failure isn't what holds you back. Fear of failure is the real culprit.
I've certainly had my share of failures. What failures have you had? What did they teach you? And how important do you think they've been in the grand scheme of your entrepreneurial journey?