A Guide to Failing in Business…with Purpose
Failing is tragic and horrible. At least that’s what we think as we watch banks, cities, even kids, fail all around us.
We don’t usually consider how failure can be a good thing. Let’s talk about those opportunities for success with this guide to failing in business.
Some Famous Failures
Fred Smith is best known as the founder of FedEx, the overnight delivery juggernaut. Not many realize that his idea for FedEx started as an economics homework assignment for which he received a grade of “C.”
The original plan was both brilliant and flawed.
When it was first created, FedEx was called “Federal Express,” and its sole mission was to solve the problem of the 7-day wait for checks to clear the Federal Reserve. The checks would be delivered every night to a hub, loaded into 727’s, and processed while in flight to their destination. The only problem was the weight of the processing equipment. It was too heavy even for 727’s!
Success Out of Failure
Fred’s original idea wouldn’t work as laid out; however, one part could work beautifully in the package delivery world. The diamond in the rough was the hub and spoke idea. Today, millions of packages are shipped by FedEx worldwide.
Let’s not forget Thomas Edison. Trying to invent the lightbulb took over 2,000 tries. Once he discovered Tungsten wouldn’t burn up when used as a filament, everyone forgot all his failures as the streets of Menlo Park, NJ were lit up!
Failure makes us feel bad. In our culture failing means being a loser – or worse. Most of us don’t want to try again after a painful failure. What about you? I know I’ve felt that way. The will to overcome the desire to quit keeps success-minded people trying until success is achieved.
For example, back in 1985, my partner Neil Ayer and I started Timeslips Corp. Our original goal was to build a software program based on an IRS regulation that required “contemporaneous record keeping” to deduct a personal computer as a taxable business deduction. After 9 months of working hard on a beautiful piece of software, the IRS relaxed their ruling.
Instead of resigning ourselves to failure, we immediately went back to the drawing board and started brainstorming other opportunities. We discovered that many people track their time. In about 4 hours, we knew how we could convert our system to a new idea. Timeslips was born.
Our original idea may have “failed,” but in the end, we built the most successful time tracking software for lawyers ever.
Instead of failure, we succeeded!
Consider Steve Jobs. He failed to get a college degree; yet, he didn’t do too badly without one, didn’t he? What about Bill Gates?
Stop giving yourself the harsh self-criticism that can come from failure.
Failing Is the Best Way to Learn
Whether failure crushes us or not, depends on how we look at the events in our lives.
Of course, failure may impact our lives. For example, you may run out of money or lose someone close to you. These events are also the ones that could make you more successful over the course of your career.
If asked, could you tell others about a time when you failed but eventually succeeded? Sure you could. We have all had that experience, and if we think about it, life was a little bit better for a reason you couldn’t see before.
Encouraging Successive Failures
Great marketing starts with testing your concept. The goal is to fail quickly so that you can apply what you learned to the next thing. Ideas begin in one direction and iterate to the next after trial and error. We fix them, and they work better than before.
Why do we get so hung up on not failing? We want others to believe we are successful. The truth is most people are too busy thinking about themselves to focus on what you are doing.
Give Yourself Permission.
My goal is to fail quickly. If something isn’t working, I don’t sit on it. I try to make it work and see what the feedback is. If the results of a new idea are reasonably good, I keep working in that direction. If they aren’t, I learn why and iterate. If that fails, I move on.
Magic Bicycle Contraption
Many years ago, my friend Steve invented a cable-pull bicycle drive system. It was a brilliant design that no bicycle manufacturer wanted to buy. He tried to start his own bicycle company, but it failed. He tried raising money, but that failed as well. Even licensing it didn’t work out.
After 20 years, he is still trying to make something of his one great idea. He gets credit for persistence. However, he doesn’t get credit for success. He should have given himself the permission to fail, iterate, and move one.
Yes, this is a little extreme. The point is still the same. Sometimes we hold onto an idea for too long. Other times – it's not long enough. We need to find a balance.
How to Fail with Purpose
- Know what you are good at and know your “WHY”. I wrote about how successful companies dominate their niche. They attract their perfect client by using their “Why”.
- Determine WHO is your ideal client. Put yourself in their shoes. Figure out their pain and solve it. Build different avatars for each type of customer or client you have.
- Enlist the help of a 3rd party. Find a coach or another business owner who will meet with you regularly. Permit them to be brutally honest about your skills and you. Figure out where you fit inside your company. Are you the leader, the techie, or the rainmaker? Find those people who can fill in for those areas you are not as strong in.
- Get out and meet people. Go to trade shows. Join masterminds and business roundtables. Find other like-minded successful people.
- Set goals for new ideas. Test them out. If they don’t measure up, cut your losses and move on.
- Stay focused. Dominate your niche by specializing in what you are good at.
- Respect the price tag. When you price too low, you are undesirable. High prices make you elite. Decide, test, and figure out what your price should be. Keep testing – as your reputation grows, your rates will as well.
- Ruthlessly build your team. Hire slowly. Fire quickly. You need team members who are really on your team. Work hard to include them. You will see big dividends.
Set an Example to Succeed by Failing
It’s up to us to show our team that it is OK to fail. Encourage it. Of course, you don’t want to make stupid or costly mistakes, but never stop trying new things and test them quickly. I do it all the time.
Work with someone who has failed AND succeeded. Perhaps you could even work with me. Let’s test your business idea and give them the best chance possible to succeed. Let’s see what happens when you reach out, gratis.