If this year has taught many in business anything, it is how failure can reach out and grab even the most successful enterprise. Yes we all have been reminded that failure is a fact of life but we may have forgotten that failure is also part of the process.
That’s not to say that I don’t empathize with those who’ve lost their jobs and fortunes in the process. However, history clearly shows us that flourishing organizations and entrepreneurs come about only after graduating from the School of Hard Knocks.
Take my company, TV Ears, for instance. We’re an 11-year old company that became an “overnight” success several years after we opened our doors. We had our typical fits and starts in the beginning, including miscalculating production and distribution costs that required us to significantly lower initial sales expectations and shift our go-to-market strategy from direct retail to hearing health specialty stores until we could achieve workable economies of scale. Now we’re an Inc. 5,000 member and on the Deloitte Fast 500 list of technology companies. We’re certainly proud of our achievements that came with a lot of tenuous moments in the early stages.
Our company’s story isn’t by any means unique. My personal favorite is the renowned “Post-It” product by 3M, which was a botched batch of relatively weak adhesive developed by one of their lab employees in 1970. It wasn’t discarded though, but instead kept in storage until another employee found the solution useful for ensuring his bookmarks stayed in place in his church hymnal book. Offered to consumers in 1980, Post-It is still one of the company’s most popular offerings, but it took a failure and ten years to get it there.
So I’d implore my entrepreneurial colleagues to keep these things in mind when you’re looking at failure:
- Perfection is a myth: The lofty ideas of creating the next wheel in a dark room are best left to fantasy and science fiction writers. Reality shows us otherwise. Take WD-40® for instance. In 1953, Rocket Chemical Company’s team of three scientists set out to develop a rust-prevention solvent. It took them several attempts to come up with the right formula. The name, WD-40, stands for Water Displacement perfected on the 40th try.
- From the ashes, opportunities may arise: One man’s definition of focus may be another’s for “tunnel vision.” Somewhere between the two will lay opportunities. Most things don’t turn out as intended, but that doesn’t mean they may not be successful. When faced with such a situation, try looking at things from different perspectives to see if there’s an opportunity waiting to be discovered.
- Ask for help: It may be a good idea to get others in the organization or trusted advisors to give their two cents. This takes some courage and trust, but the benefits in potentially uncovering ways to turn a failed initiative into a resounding success are significant.
I heard this phrase once: the smartest people in the world are the ones that know what they don’t know. That’s an important mindset to achieve in business. Failure will most certainly happen to us all on one level or another. The key is what one does when faced with it.