Successful Founders Learn to Ignore the Fear of Failure

Successful Founders Learn to Ignore the Fear of Failure

Recently, I heard a tale of a colleague who had what looked like a great idea, but was too afraid of trying it for fear of failure. A few years on, someone else does it and makes a success from it. Ah, that old hindsight.

If you look at successful people around the globe, they have all failed, and typically a number of times. What makes them get up, dust off and try again? They know to ignore that fear of failure that lives inside all of us.

I recently spoke with a venture capital manager, who said for each 1,000 investments, 997 will fail. They just want the other three. The message is that failure, and the acceptance of failure, is an important facet of entrepreneurship.


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Failure = Entrepreneurship

Traditional (Ahem, old school) business folks state things like “Sorry mate, if you don’t succeed at first attempt, then you must be a failure.”. It’s this type of thinking that can stop an early entrepreneur in their tracks. It’s a complete disincentive to even begin, let alone persevere.

Starting a new business forces you to overcome a daily barrage of disincentives and negativity. Someone once said that entrepreneurs should be getting laughed at and having doors slammed in their face daily, otherwise they’re not trying hard enough. In other words, frequent failure is part of the game and you need to be out there trying, not sitting at your desk and avoiding failure.

If you think a few doors slammed in your face is “failure,” there are numerous examples of successful startups who were rejected by plenty of venture capitalists before finally securing funding. Or read some of Brad Feld’s posts on failure. You’ll quickly get the picture that failure and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand.

Without this failure, would we have the iPhone?

More broadly, Entrepreneur magazine cited a Harvard study which discovered that previously-failed entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed than first-time entrepreneurs. The magazine also has this short article about failure and how failed entrepreneurs must come to terms with their mistakes in order to learn from them.

But what is really behind our local fear of failure? Or, is it even worth trying to determine the causes? The answer is “No,” and the point is simply that the Australian startup community needs to know, see, and hear that a business failure not the end of their career, and it has to come from both their peers, local business leaders, and, as VCs outside of Australia have shown, it has to come from the local funding community.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill.

5 Points on Failure

Here are five points on failure that every Australian entrepreneur should consider, when ignoring the fear of failure.

Learn, then try again

There’s a famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison and his hundreds of failed light-bulb designs, where he doesn’t view them as failures however rather hundreds of newly-discovered ways to not make a light-bulb. It’s this attitude that’s truly required for a healthy entrepreneurial spirit to thrive.

It’s beyond optimism; it’s a recognition that failure is an acceptable, necessary component of creativity and invention, without which entrepreneurs would rarely succeed.

Fail fast

This advice is frequently spouted. Many entrepreneurs who’ve founded a failure wished that they would have owned up to it much sooner than they finally did. They wasted time, money, and emotional capital. However failure is inevitably delayed by feelings of ownership, responsibility, and pride.

As an entrepreneur, you should recognise your failure, own up to it, then define what you learned from the experience.

Ask yourself why did you fail? Obviously, it’s not because you didn’t have the confidence, intelligence, and support to leap into the startup world. And, most likely, it’s not something that you can blame on someone or something else. Maybe your partner wasn’t fully committed, maybe a key deal didn’t come through, or maybe your customers just didn’t get it.

Ultimately, however, you should have recognised the issues earlier and done something to address them. You should have, however now you know what you would do differently the next time. As both VCs and successful entrepreneurs say, you learn more from failure than success.

Address challenges

Owning your shortcomings or the underlying reasons for failure helps you better prepare as you embark on your next venture. Whether you put another entrepreneurial idea to work, join a small business, or head to the corporate world, you’re already more prepared than most. You’ll know where your expertise ends and where you’ll need help.

You’ll better recognise the precursors of failure and, hopefully, jump to quickly address them. And, having already failed, you’ll know the risks before you make decisions. Or, as this author wrote during the first dotcom bust, you’ll fail forward.

Don’t stop trying

Even if you return to working for someone else, maintain that entrepreneurial drive. Become the CEO of your domain, own it, and push yourself to make it succeed.

Failure teaches you a lot about business, others, and yourself, however also shows you that, as cliche as it sounds, every ending is really a new beginning. Even within larger organisations, treating failure as a learning experience is gaining momentum and can actually help your career.

Respect others’ failures

New entrepreneurs, angels, VCs, successful business people, corporations, and others – no one is immune from failure. Look at Friendster’s failure, which propelled its founder into a career as a successful VC, investor, and mentor.

Rather than hide from it, use it as a tool to help others succeed. Pass along your story of failure and how you used that experience to get where you are today. More openness from everyone about past failures could begin to remove the perceived stigma.

Smash that fear of failure

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that you are not a failure, even if your business was. Throw the fear of failure out of your lexicon. Dust yourself off, stand up and get back to it. Good luck!

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