5 Lessons Learned From Failing in Business
Once upon a time, I stood in an audience listening to a soon-to-be-friend of mine, Jason Seiden, announce his newest book, Fail Spectacularly. I was happy for Seiden and interested in the premise, but I didn’t really think all these stories of missing by a mile or focusing on the wrong thing applied to me. I was in my mid-twenties and had turned a failure of a company into something that, at the time, resembled my career today. It was a post-pivotal moment, and I felt pretty good about it.
And then everything exploded: The failure I thought I’d parlayed into two new companies (supported by a full-time job) was not sustainable with three young kids and travel. It took a toll on my marriage, my new companies, and my friendships. While I “Tarzaned” from gig to gig to make sure my family never went hungry, I didn’t feel like a success. I felt like a survivor, which is not always the best.
Today, I have a wonderful, modest, and ethical agency that is growing in all the right ways. When I started it, my confidence was not high, my expectations were extremely low, and an agency really wasn’t what I wanted. The lessons I’ve learned along the way are more valuable than our revenue numbers, employee count, or awards.
Here are a few of them:
1. Learn Humility
This has been the hardest lesson for me. I had a chip on my shoulder about how smart and experienced I was. I felt other people were getting opportunities I should have gotten. Learning to be humble has helped ease that feeling – somewhat. (I grew up with four sisters, so competition is in my blood.)
Furthermore, learning humility has taught me to ask for help, a crucial skill considering that up to 90 percent of startups fail and that failure is more likely for one-founder startups (my situation when I started the company.)
I beat the odds, but that doesn’t make me smarter; it makes me lucky.
Humble leaders are more effective because they’re genuinely liked. While being liked isn’t necessarily important for productivity, it is important for engagement. As we know, engagement is crucial to performance.
Admit your mistakes, be approachable, and showcase your employees’ strengths. The organization will grow as a result.
2. Past Mistakes Are Expensive Lessons
There were a lot of contributing factors to my last failure – poor communication, lack of humility (me again), and lack of product (not me). I’ve taken these lessons to heart, and they deeply influence my behavior today, including the way I interact with employees and clients and the products I choose to work on. Why? Because I paid for these lessons.
Failing at a startup, job, or business relationship is an education, and you pay for it with the most finite of resources: time.
Mistakes give leaders anecdotes to inspire change in teams. They encourages employees to be resilient and accountable. They show your workforce that you are, in fact, human.
The next time an employee makes a mistake, share a time when you faced a similar issue instead of reprimanding them.
3. Not Every Idea Is a Good Idea
This was a difficult lesson to learn for myself, and it’s just as difficult to help my team learn it. For every amazing idea, there will likely be 10 bad ones. As a leader, you have to focus on the ideas that align with your goals and have the best chances of working. If you try to snag every idea you come up with, you will quickly deplete your energy and resources, and your customers will be upset with your lack of focus.
According to a 2014 survey, more than 80 percent of small business owners don’t track their business goals. If you’re one of them, it’s time to start. Create a document to track your ideas and goals. Ideally, it should be accessible via mobile so that you can use it anytime, anywhere. Evernote and Google Drive are great tools for this.
Writing down your goals makes you 80 percent more likely to achieve them, so you really have no excuse not to.
4. You Can’t Help Everyone
When you have a passion for something (mine is locating the business or revenue model at the heart of an idea), you want to share that gift. When you do, people begin to devalue it. If someone can’t afford to pay you, you need to let them tackle business needs alone (unless it’s a really great cause). Why take on their business issues when you have your own?
In a Tiny Buddha article, Annika Martins writes, “Share your talents and resources. Generously give your time and attention. But you cannot pour a magical tonic on the wounds of every person walking the planet. It’s not your job. And if it were, it’d be a sucky job because you’d fail at it every single day.”
5. You Will Have Your Own Business Issues
Just because you’ve failed once (or many times) doesn’t mean you’ve learned every lesson there is to learn. You’re going to continue to fail, incrementally, as long as you’re in business (Google Wave, anyone?).
You cannot throw your arms up and walk away. Sometimes, you have to work through your failures. That’s the most important lesson of all. Learn how to communicate with struggling employees, how to handle difficult clients, and when to confront partners who are trying to swindle you. The most important part of success is learning to identify failure and turn it into a win.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.