Failure – A Seven Letter, Four Letter Word

My first business was a very successful digital agency and consultancy, it gave me almost a decade-long adventure, taking me around the world and enjoying the thrill of being on top of my game, it was my life. The .com crash however, slaughtered this business in spectacular fashion- and once the loose ends were tied up, I was very quickly back at square one….

There is a universe of tools, advice, guides and so forth to help you manage your business risks, and hopefully not fail, but in this piece I’m dealing with life past that comfort blanket…

The First Punch

After something as catastrophic as a business failure, you can be mentally, physically and emotionally drained – but at the same time, you have no option but to get back up and carry on; the world doesn’t stop spinning, just because you do.

I remember a good friend (a keen martial arts expert) likening it to the first proper punch you ever receive, you’re shocked and no doubt in pain, but at least you know how it feels now, and at least you can move forward from it and carry on fighting; this seemed at the time- as it does now- a useful analogy.   If you stay down, you’re out of the game and have lost by default; so why not dust yourself down, get up, and carry on the fight as best you can…

The Blame Game

It’s important to establish why your business or project didn’t succeed, and to do this early whilst the facts are in your mind.

Failure exists on a spectrum, there are those incidents which are totally inexcusable for example all-out fraud, mishandling of the company and it’s finances, and so forth – and incidents which are, perhaps, more ‘normal’ in the course of business – economic and market changes together with significant adverse business events such as the loss of a major contract or sometimes even the loss of a key-individual.

Understanding truly why a failure occurred and making peace with it is the first step to being able to move-forward- it allows you to identify where the gaps where in you and your enterprise, and hopefully will give you insights into where you need more support, education and attention.

Failure is Important

 Culturally I’m still surprised that business failure is seen as such a black-mark against people in many nations where enterprise sits at the heart of their economy. Entrepreneurship is by its very nature highly reliant on experimentation. Even if you are setting up a new business in an established market, the truth is that what you’re doing is creative, uncertain and comes with a degree of risk.

As a frequent visitor to the USA, I always note that Entrepreneurs on that side of the pond are much more open about all manner of failure stories, and in many cases- people aren’t taken seriously as business leaders until they’ve had a couple of losses under their belt. In one case, I went to a networking event in New York based around entrepreneurs sharing their greatest failures, and you know what? It was wonderful…. many had gone on to be immensely successful, and attributed their business prowess to the knocks they had along the way. I have to admit, even in my own journey, the failures I’ve had have- perhaps- been the most important component to making me achieve the successes since.

Over the years, I’ve met many super-talented individuals who had the potential to become great entrepreneurs, but who elected not to primarily because of the fear of failure or a lack of comfort with the unfamiliar.

Look Forward and Be Prepared

In 2014, I was lucky enough to speak at length with Ed Catmull, who co-founded Disney Pixar. I asked him about failure, and his advice stuck with me ever since, “People should adopt a fearlessness where they are trying new things, but then accept that by doing this- a certain percentage of things will fail. Failure is not a necessary evil, but rather- it is a positive part of on-going progress. If you don’t have some failures continually, it is a signal that you have retreated into the conservative past.   Most people still interpret failure as an unfortunate thing to get to success, but this isn’t actually what it means. What failure really means is that you are trying to live life, and the fact that you fail means that you are trying. As soon as you try to avoid failure, you are facing the wrong direction.”


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.