Bart Embrechts is managing partner of Gumption Group. In this opinion article he explains why failure does not need to be romanticised.
It happened to Walt Disney. H.J. Heinz, the ketchup guy. And Donald Trump, four times no less. Going bankrupt. Just a few decades ago, failure would have been equivalent to tarring and feathering. Today, ‘serial entrepreneurs’ wear their failures like a badge of honour.
My business has gone bust, long live my business! Or ‘the King is dead’, 21st-century style. At a reception, I once heard one entrepreneur ask another: ‘How often have you failed?’ ‘Never,’ the second replied, almost apologetically.
With all these success stories of failed entrepreneurs who eventually become stock-exchange listed wunderkinds, you could be forgiven for thinking that failure is a condition for success. That it needs to be glorified. Allow me to make a brief observation.
In the same way heart failure can encourage you to adopt a healthier lifestyle or market failure can force a society to do things differently, a bankruptcy can open doors to a ‘better business’. Enterprise 2.0, born of a vital reboot.
Luckily, the days of being ashamed of failure have gone. It is good that entrepreneurs can speak of their ‘failing’ without fear. As Peter De Keyzer says in the Failing Forward campaign by Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen: ‘Failing is temporary, quitting is permanent.’ That said, there is no need for glorification. It takes guts to be an entrepreneur and anyone brave enough to go for it can fall flat on their face. Did you learn something and will you do things better going forward? Bravo, failing was worth it. Has it left you broken? Then, failing was a disaster.
At Gumption, we put up safety nets to make sure failure isn’t fatal. By investing, we create a bigger window of opportunity, the space required to allow a business to flourish. We reduce that period of time when you are anxiously holding your breath. Because when costs are beginning to rise in a start-up and revenues are slow to materialise, things can go really fast. And before you know it, the window of opportunity closes right in your face. You don’t necessarily go bankrupt because your idea is bad. Some of the most brilliant ideas failed. Friendster surrendered to Facebook. AltaVista made way for Google. You fail because the timing or execution weren’t quite right.
True, through failing, you sometimes know more than those who didn’t. Anyone who learns from their mistakes becomes smarter. But that doesn’t make failure a heroic feat, let alone a condition for success. There is no need to respect failure. Show grace to those who failed? That is something we can never do enough. Because anyone who failed has at least proven one thing: that he or she had the guts to go into business.