Friday, September 28, 2007

Lessons in Entrepreneurial Success - Failure

In virtually every culture around the globe and at many socio-economic levels, owning a business remains a dream. And with that dream are hopes, fears, fantasies and illusions of what it is really like to start a business and run a company. Yet the promise of financial independence and the ability to be self-determining carries strong appeal. I know because Ive been an entrepreneur since I was 22 years old. I also had the opportunity of being a venture capitalist. It looks different on each side of that desk and here are some things I learned about failure that may help you succeed.

The process of beginning a business embodies the mysteries of birth and creation. How does it really begin? How do you make something happen? It requires a mind-set that simultaneously holds opposites of what isnt and what could be as possible realities. In the earliest stages, one has to believe fervently and work tirelessly toward something that does not yet exist.

A business is not just an activity. Golf is an activity. A business must produce something of value. It must create something that someone, somewhere, somehow will pay to have. This sounds obvious to state, but is often overlooked: business is about creating value. And the personal satisfaction or intangible value derived by the owner is in many ways incidental. The value must manifest in terms of products and services generating revenues and profits, as well as benefits to customers and stakeholders.

Why do some businesses succeed and other seemingly similar companies often fail? The recipe for success is unknown, but the secrets are in the details. And the attitude of the entrepreneur may be the most important ingredient.

Any business is truly a series of secrets. Those secrets are discovered through a series of experiments. Sometimes entrepreneurs complain that business is difficult. One can consider it to be hard or recognize that if it were that easy or obvious, everyone would be doing and there would be very little opportunity for you. Try to keep in mind that you want to create a mindset that empowers you. The extent to which you think it is difficult, will correspond to the amount of struggle and suffering you undergo. Instead try to create an attitude of Its just a game or Im curious how this can work. You will enjoy it more and probably get better results more quickly.

An experienced entrepreneur is like an experienced scientist who designs the experiments recognizing the probability of failure, and in fact, the necessity of it. The design of these experiments can have a rapid prototyping effect for failing fast and often. By performing experiments with clear measurements for monitoring empirical data can get the team closer to those secrets.

Most of us do not want to fail. Ever. From childhood, were taught that its bad, even shameful. This is a young conversation that needs to shift if you want to ultimately reach your vision. It doesnt empower anyone and its not helpful.

So, you have to be willing to fail. Entrepreneurs who expect not to fail are going to be in trouble. Those who dont have an emotional context for failure and those who feel very badly when early experiments dont work out, are going to suffer a lot. And it may even jeopardize their chances of ultimate success. Not only do you need to fail fast and fail often, you dont have time to feel bad about it. You have to reframe failure so that its not bad and it doesnt mean anything other than you are that much closer to the next secret.

How many times did Thomas Edison fail to create electric light bulb? At last, when those experiments start to succeed, its time to capture it. Be observant enough to recognize when its working. Then those successes must be developed into systems that produce predictable and profitable, scalable results. These results are the wins that entrepreneurs and investors alike are searching for in their ventures.

Always, the entrepreneurial team needs to be asking themselves whats the most important thing to do next? Where can we get the best results? What will move us closer to our next goals?

Planning is the lifeblood of young businesses. Companies must develop plans for each and every aspect of their business, while maintaining tremendous flexibility. These plans need to be tested and assessed. You even need to plan for failure. (Not plan to fail, but plan to know when you are failing, when to stop, and what to do to get back on track.) The strategies, failures, and successes need to be continually evaluated. Assumptions need to be identified and questioned. Results need to be analyzed. Thats how companies learn and grow. Thats how they uncover their business secrets.

In the process of uncovering these secrets, young companies and their leaders need to find or create a support structure. You may even fail in that. If you are failing to find support, you need to rethink your vision. Do you believe in what you are doing? Why or why not? Tell the truth. Entrepreneurs need to answer the question, Who is going to be passionate about your company and why? With so many innovative and high potential companies, entrepreneurs soon realize that their business vision has to be compelling in order to attract and keep customers. It has to be exciting enough to motivate investors. It has to be promising to attract good management. If you are not getting the support and involvement, consider restating your vision and mission. What part of you is not sure? Why are you really doing this? What difference does it make to whom? Why is it important that it succeed? Why does the world need this?

Ultimately, its not about your secret sauce. Its about leadership. Its about you. And you are the only element in this equation that is truly within your control. While a proprietary technology or methodology is exciting, it takes more than this to make a companys vision compelling. Remember, it has to really matter to someone. And you have to be able to speak this vision as the leader. Then it takes well-defined strategies that can be executed by mature leadership to build a solid company and generate shareholder value.

Remember to look at Reality. The Real Reality, not the one you want to happen, thats called denial. You have to know that you dont know. Hypothesize and test results. Constantly create your Plan. Test the Plan. What happened? Okay, now modify the Plan. Test the Plan. Adjust and improve. Build your strategies and tactics. This is the process of developing a business and its thrilling to see the results. Be courageous.

So what if its never really easy. It can be the most exciting journey of your life.

Rebel Holiday has 25 years experience establishing and developing companies. At age 22 she started her first company on the proverbial shoestring and built it into a successful business in just a couple years. She originally began speaking to share her business ideas. Now a professional speaker, Ms. Holiday has presented to hundreds of diverse audiences in corporations and associations internationally, traveling to 43 countries. She assisted over 200 entrepreneurial companies launch with early-stage venture funds in the Washington D.C. Metro area. Ms. Holiday has taught classes on topics related to entrepreneurship and business to graduate students in MBA programs at American University, Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and University of Maryland.

She now works with companies through Emergence Growth Consulting, Inc. and

She passionately maintains that conscious entrepreneurship, intentionality and collaboration can shift the quality of life on our planet.