#34 How Entrepreneurs Deal With Failure

Today, I admit failure. I’ve been trying and trying to get this teleclass thing right. My research project  – the Hot Mommas Project – is now the world’s largest women’s case study library. Where to go from here? “You need to capture and package the knowledge you have from the Hot Mommas Project and your class at GW,” people tell me. Amy Millman of Springboard has suggested an Omni Media model (we can all dream….and Amy dreams BIG!).

Here is the tricky part: How to reconcile THINKING BIG with FEAR OF FAILURE.  As a former inhabitant of the fear-of-failure MSA, I invite you to read the over-achiever’s rules for failure, and the surprising benefits, mixed in with my lessons from interviewing thousands of business folk over the years.

The preface to falling on one’s face.

So, people have a couple of reactions to fear of failure. One is the white-knuckle grip:

The white knucklers: “I’m not going to let this sucker go and will fix this through force of will!”

The other reaction to failure is complacency:

The complacents: “Eh..who cares? That’s boring. Yada yada.”

Which are you? I am a varsity white-knuckler.  I have to carefully choose when and where I inject this temporary psychosis.  Good use of  white-knuckling psychosis: Getting into business school. Bad use of white-knuckling psychosis: Giving everything equal weight and drowning in your convictions. In my white knuckling hey-day, when I was applying to business school…for the second time…and getting my second round of recommendation letters, after taking the GMATS for the third time, I read the following on the letter in my application:

“Has a difficult time accepting failure.”

I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s just trying to come up with one of those negative/positive comments that the admissions committee will secretly like.”  But, all these years later, I actually wonder.

Is there a benefit to experiencing and working through failure?

And, is it an executive-level skill we should help the next generation to acquire? As an entrepreneur and educator who now realizes the benefit of experience -and the failure that MUST accompany that experience – I believe the answer is “yes.”  YES – failure is something we must experience, and be able to deal with. In the past, I viewed failure as a defeat. Now, I view it as an inevitable occurence from time to time. The real question is: What does one actually DO with failure once you encounter it.

1. Practice failing.

Yes, this sounds weird.  Start small. Little failures hurt less.  You may already be ahead of the game! Have you ever screwed up on a test? Made a social blunder? Gotten your TPS report in late?  Bad news: The “cringe” moment stinks. Good news: You’re trying things, which brings experience.

Action Item: In the left of three columns on a piece of paper, RECORD some of the small failures.

My example: As I complained about earlier, I put together a teleclass for women on mentoring. I thought “this will be the greatest thing since sliced bread!” I tweeted. People re-retweeted. For WEEKS. One person signed up.

2. Learn from the failure.

Every time you fail is an opportunity to learn. In addition to sounding like a really annoying thing your grandparents would tell you, this also happens to be true.

Action Item: In the middle column, write what you have learned from the failure.

My example: Momma-hood. I have never felt my learning curve and self-confidence increase so quickly as when I had kids. It DWARFS any business learnings in my life. How is that possible?  I am always messing stuff up, forgetting things, yelling when I say I won’t yell. But, I think I am a good mom. How is this possible? That one can royally screw stuff up AND be really good at their job?

Two things:

1. You just can. Literally no one is perfect…except George Clooney.

2. The more we TRY, the more we may FAIL, but the more we LEARN, which makes us BETTER. This process – with some successes and supporters mixed in – is what provides the life experience to weather the storm. If you’re driving a TANK of self-confidence and experience, a pebble will make a little ding. If you’re driving the Razor Scooter of self-confidence and experience, the pebble will pack more of a wallop.

If you’re driving a TANK of self-confidence and experience, a pebble will make a little ding. If you’re driving the Razor Scooter of self-confidence and experience, the pebble will pack more of a wallop.

My example part deux: Mommahood meets teleclass. When no one signed up for my teleclass, I first thought, “People don’t get it.” But, the truth is – it’s me who doesn’t get it. I go through this cycle of problem identification, frustration, and solution MUCH more quickly now. I have to. I’m a mom. I am JUST LIKE the momma rat described in this study at University of Richmond by Dr. Craig Kinsley:

“Upon becoming a mother, a female rat’s learning, memory, time management and efficiency improve.”

So, now, instead of dying a little death because something is wrong with the teleclass,  I think of it as a fun intellectual puzzle to figure out.

Skip this to avoid gory strategy detail (My thoughts on the problem with the telecalss):

  • I think it could be the title. My hypothesis is that the term “mentor” is too much like “will you marry me” after the first date. I need to start with a more junior varsity term.
  • The cost and time – I have a hard time believing it’s the cost, which is $99.  But, that could be a barrier. Also, two or three hours is a bit much for someone who has no idea who I am.

3. The Bounce Back.

There are parables about “fall down seven times, get up eight.”  That is LITERALLY what it’s all about in business and life. On example is students during the semester. When they fall behind, these students need to:

a. Admit it (to themselves).

b. Admit it (to me).

c. Make a plan to turn it around.

d. Execute the plan.

These steps are actually VERY HARD. Even more difficult, one might argue, than the messing up part.

Action item: In the third column, note the application of your learning. For instance, did you change the way you did TPS reports so you could get them in on time? My guess is that if there is no successful application of your learning (Step 2), you have NOT completed the process. Most need to go through Steps A through D.

“When you don’t learn your lesson, the universe brings it back to you.”

Marlene Elias

My example:

a. Admit it (to themselves). I know this teleclass is a dud, at least the marketing of it. The content is solid.

b. Admit it (to other stakeholders / involved parties). Well, there is only one other involved party at this point – the one student who needs to be refunded. However, taking this example broader – in an office setting there is nothing I love more than hearing “I screwed up, and here’s how I’m going to fix it.” It just makes me beam with pride. This person is demonstrating executive level critical thinking skills, putting the organization about themselves, and being solutions oriented! Brilliant! Achin (our Learning Community Manager) does this all of the time. It’s one of the reasons he is so excellent. You can’t be excellent if you can’t understand what success is, and how you are measuring up.

You can’t be excellent if you can’t understand what success is, and how you are measuring up.

c. Make a plan to turn it around. I will play with the teleclass verbiage going forward and see what kind of response I get. I think , again, the term “mentor” is too much of a committment for people. I’ve can safely rule out time (3 hours) and money ($99), because I have massive groups of people investing way more time and money for several-week courses I run on Women’s Business Leadership.

d. Execute the plan. I actually do not plan to do this in the near-term. I plan to have this in “observe and learn” mode. I have some other priorities right now and feel I’ve already put this through one R&D cycle.

  • 5.26.10 – Okay, I totally lied. I spent the morning after this post re-working the tele-class. I lowered the commitment (to one hour) and the price (to “free”). The second major step was taking out the word “mentor,” and making a more interesting title. What are people REALLY going to get out of this? It’s MORE than a mentor. I made the title reflect that. I tried to – as Rosabeth Moss Kanter says – “grab them by the throat” right away (this was just a very impactful way of saying “non optional…get their attention”). People don’t have time to ferret out what the heck you’re talking about. In fact, you probably don’t have the time to read this. What are you doing? Get back to work! Click here to see the new seminar page.
  • Why do this? Don’t our business school professors teach us not to compete on price? (Unless you are employing the “cost leadership” position, which I’m not). Well, I am building a funnel. The funnel has to be wide. Making it a two- or three-hour commitment, and charging for it, creates to many barriers. So, I am seeing how this “broad and slim” approach goes.  I have no good analogy for this. Ice rink?

The results. It’s working.

  • New strategy for teleclass.  Number of Tweets = 2. Number of Registrants = 2.
  • Old strategy for teleclass. Number of Tweets (and Retweets) = 156. Number of Registrants = 1.

WORDS OF WARNING: Don’t be “too good” to fail.

Where your resume and experience can help you: A D&B report indicates that 96% of small business failure is attributable to managerial incompetence. So, your experience and education CAN help in that way.

Where your resume and experience can’t help you:You know those people who JUST CAN’T admit their plan stinks, or they are horrible at organizing? These may be the same people who have a hard time apologizing for things and – worse yet – try to make it your fault! Don’t feel bad. These people are condemned to a type of business and career purgatory. They will not advance because they cannot even get to part “a” of the bounce back plan: Admitting it.  This knuckle-dragging behavior will always come back to haunt someone in their career or personal life. Looking a challenge right in the face, even if you created that challenge, is the surest way to a true feeling of freedom and success.

Looking a challenge right in the face, even if you created that challenge, is the surest way to a true feeling of freedom and success.

PARTING THOUGHTS: At the end of the day you have to be a real person, saying what really happened, and working toward a solution, usually with other people. Otherwise you will be stunted from an emotional and a career standpoint. As I tell my students: It’s not about being right, it’s about making it better.

It’s not about being right, it’s about making it better.

What is the Hot Mommas Project?

The Hot Mommas Project is an award-winning venture housed at the George Washington University School of Business.  We make women’s stories teachable using our “case wizard” at www.HotMommasProject.org . The Hot Mommas Project library is the first of its kind, providing scalable, global access to role models and virtual mentors that can be used by educators, trainers, and parents. We’ve been featured in Prentice Hall textbooks, the Washington Post Magazine, NPR and are the winner of a national Coleman Foundation case award.

How you can get involved: Write your story, or nominate a dynamic woman 18 or older.

Our call for 2011 nominations has begun. While the contest runs through January 31, 2011 – Start now! There will be prizes this spring and fall for early bird publishers.

How it works: Nominated women come online, write their story using our “case wizard,” and click “publish” to be permanently archived in our case library.  Winners will be published in a leading Prentice Hall textbook in addition to other honors and prizes. To participate, nominate a dynamic woman 18 or older (yourself included) here or find us on Twitter. No, you do not need to be a mom. To inquire about sponsorship, email us.


9 thoughts on “#34 How Entrepreneurs Deal With Failure

  1. Fantastic post — and a tough subject to talk about. Lead by example. KEY strategy — have a group of TRUSTED ADVISORS — not just friends who will tell you what you want to hear. You are too close — you gave birth to the thing — you have tunnel vision. Someone who you trust has your best interests but has a different perspective can help you SEE what you can’t so you can learn and grow. The knuckle draggers (LOVE that) don’t ask and don’t listen.

    • Gracias Lisa. And, yes, having folks around you can exponentially grow the learnings from tough situations. However, you need to build up your strength to deal with and process that information. Open firehose, insert face. So starting small is helpful. Great feedback.


  2. From one varsity white-knuckler to another–Thanks for sharing this good wisdom and your personal application of your learning.

  3. Entreprenuers need to be optimistic and positive in dealing with their failures to savour the sweetness of success which one achieves later on.

  4. Pingback: Summary of Posts 4 – Building a Million Dollar Business Part Time « Hot Mommas Project blog
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