Why failure is such a powerful force in business

Conventional logic suggests that failure doesn't feature in the vocabularies of most entrepreneurs. But it's the fear of failing that drives so many startups to unbridled success

Why failure is such a powerful force in business

Failure can be an awkward topic, especially in business. At Lehman Brothers, I witnessed the most spectacular financial failure in recent history. However, it’s well documented how many ex-Lehman employees have gone on to launch successful businesses. This demonstrates that failure – whether it’s your own fault or not – mustn’t be feared. It’s how you react to it that counts.  

For many entrepreneurs, nothing drives them more than the fear of it all going wrong. The last thing they want is to invest everything into a new venture – while sacrificing time with family and friends – only for it to mean nothing. Any successful entrepreneur needs this drive when they first start out; pressure often brings out the best in people and those first months are always the hardest.

The first year with MarketInvoice was tough. We started out with no brand and no customers. Businesses didn’t trust us and had no idea who we were or what we did. Pushing through those early numbers, you remember every milestone: your first customer, the first ten employees, one million funded. Those are the days when that fear of disaster really gets you through.

But as a business grows and you mature as an entrepreneur, failure stops becoming something you’re forever running away from. You’ll soon discover that it’s bound to happen one day, on some scale. After five years in business, we’ve had our fair share of failures – and that’s fine. Failures occur when you try new things and experiment and this same culture of experimentation will also bring some great successes. 

Ultimately, failure plays an important role in successful businesses and at MarketInvoice we embrace failure as a valuable learning opportunity. We work hard to make sure we learn from our mistakes. Every project we do is followed by a careful retrospective and we’ve found that time spent learning from the past is more effective than time spent planning for the future. 

Nevertheless, there is a cultural difference between the UK and the US where failure is concerned. American entrepreneurs tend to take more risks, especially when scaling a business. Take Amazon and its list of failed products: a hotel-booking site, an online retail-auction service, even its Fire phone. Not only do few consumers even remember these failures, Amazon has since continued to launch great new products into multiple new markets.    

I often find with UK businesses that fear of failure creates a reluctance to experiment and inclination to play it safe. When you hear how half of UK startups fail within the first five years, it’s makes sense to be scared when launching your own; that fear helps drive you at the beginning. But once you are past that stage, embracing failure and taking risks is a necessary ingredient of business growth. Not all of the risks will pay off but the few that do will propel your startup forward. No matter how contrived it sounds, the words still ring true: always keep trying and never, ever give up. 

Anil Stocker
Anil Stocker

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