I lost my first business. Hard.
I haven’t yet experienced anything more painful or humiliating. It haunts me to this day.
If you’re an ambitious perfectionist with an entrepreneurial streak like me, failure will haunt you too (keep reading though, the whole article isn’t this gloomy).
If you study modern entrepreneurship, especially startup culture, you may have heard the term “fail fast, fail often.”
The idea is that not only should you expect failure in business, you should actively seek it as a necessary step toward your big success. Repeated failure is a glamorous badge of honor.
What a dangerous idea.
Fail fast + fail often = failing strategy
Fail fast, fail often may work for breezy Silicon Valley tech startups full of 20-year-olds with rivers of venture capital to burn, but that is not how everyday businesses operate. For them, one big failure is usually all they can afford.
Most businesses close within their first five years. Most of those failures don’t mean just coming back Monday, playing a game of Foosball, and finding something else to fail at. Those failures mean bills don’t get paid, savings get lost, and families in financial and emotional crisis.
That’s what it meant to me and my family.
It took me more than five years and much pain to dig out of my first failure. It’s true, you do learn from failure. I learned volumes (that I share on this blog). What I learned helped me be successful in my second business, which I ran profitably for 10 years.
But please listen to me, failure is not a game and certainly not something to be sought. Don’t glamorize it.
When does this post get happy?
Now. Just because you may fail does not mean you should not start your business. As mentioned above, I started another business after my first failure and it was a success. It was profitable within the first year and grew for 10 years, when I closed it on my own terms.
My second business was successful because I learned from my first failure. That said, I could have learned those lessons other, less painful and expensive ways. Here are a few.
Ways to grow a business other than failure
- Read, read, read. And listen. There has never been a better time to learn the art and science of entrepreneurship. There are thousands of books, blogs, podcasts, and websites (including this one) to help you avoid mistakes and failures.
Also, take time to listen to seasoned entrepreneurs. We love to share our wisdom with others.
For instance, I probably should not have bought my first business. From a financial perspective, the deal was too risky. People tried to tell me that, including the lawyer who brokered the deal. But I wouldn’t listen. I was going to beat the odds. Just like in Vegas, the odds beat me.
Doing your homework before starting a business can save you years of time (and tons of money) trying to learn these lessons on your own. In fact, here is an article from Forbes to get you started.
Good book: Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout.
Good blog: Lesseverything.com (Less is a software development firm, but the content is relevant to all entrepreneurs).
- Maybe start your business as a side hustle first. I understand the romance of jumping off the cliff and starting a business with no parachute, you against the world. I’ve done it. But it is largely a myth.
It is perfectly fine (and many times, much more successful), to start your idea as a nights-and-weekends thing first. Keep your day job for now, pay your bills, and see if you actually like running a business. Many folks find out that they don’t. At least you will know before going all in.
If your enterprise starts to grow and you like being an entrepreneur, find the right time and go for it.
Good side hustle blog: ILikeToDabble
I actually wrote a piece for them about my entrepreneurial journey, if you’d like to know more.
Join the club, but don’t be stupid
I am an entrepreneur and always will be. I will always have business ideas and want to pursue them. If you are like that, don’t be afraid of it. There are few things more rewarding than business ownership. Your time will come.
But don’t buy in to the hype of the risk-it-all, devil-may-care entrepreneur. You’ll go broke and may never come back. The real entrepreneurs in my life are some of the most careful people I know.
They are careful because they hate to fail. And so should you.