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Why is failure so important to entrepreneurship?

7th March 2023
A road sign indicating the wrong path

This post celebrates failure.  

Or rather, it celebrates the rewards of failure. 

Now, I’ve written about the benefits of ‘failing fast’ before. But after recording my latest podcast with Professor John Mullins, I felt I needed to revisit this topic. Because, believe it or not, failure is an important part of being an entrepreneur. 

John is Associate Professor of Management Practice in Marketing and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, so he’s pretty well-placed to talk about entrepreneurship. And he does so brilliantly – just listen for yourself or watch the video below! 

But he’s an entrepreneur, too. He has real-world experience, so to speak, and he has the battle scars to prove it. 

After leaving his job at US retailer GAP, he launched his own chain of pasta stores in the US. At its height, John had around 12 locations. It was only when the big-name supermarkets started to make their own similar products that his business started to fail. 

It’s his warts-and-all experience as well as his understanding of the theory of business and marketing that helps John connect with his students in his current world of academia. 

But as Oscar Wilde said: ‘Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes’. 

You either win, or you learn

When standing on that cliff-edge about to make a big business decision, we’re hard-wired to think ‘what if I fall’, not ‘what if I fly’. We’re told to mitigate the negatives, not emphasise the possibilities. 

And that might have something to do with the word fail – a word we’ve banned from our business. 

To me, you can never actually ‘fail’. You can either win, or learn. 

That was effectively the subject of my previous blog post on this topic. That failure can be a source of insight and can tell you exactly what you did wrong. 

The faster you fail as an entrepreneur, the quicker you learn. And the sooner you learn, the sooner you succeed. Whether that’s applying learnings in your current business or avoiding old mistakes in your next one. 

John’s new book, ‘Break the Rules!: The Six Counter-Conventional Mindsets of Entrepreneurs That Can Help Anyone Change the World’, shows how entrepreneurs seek out learning opportunities. They resist the risk-averse nature of corporate organisations and figure out new ways to succeed.  

The Power of Saying Yes

These days we hear a lot about the power of saying ‘no’. And in the context of mental health, that can be really powerful advice. But sometimes in business we also need to talk about the power of saying ‘yes’ – because that’s what entrepreneurs do time and time again. 

When new business opportunities arrive, they say yes. It’s only later when they get home do they think ‘wow, how am I going to deliver this?’  

I’ve always said entrepreneurs bite off more than they can chew, and then they very quickly learn how to chew it. They grasp the opportunity in front of them and then they create a vision for how to succeed. 

And as John says on the podcast, that’s a mindset that’s rife among successful entrepreneurs – but not among large businesses. As John puts it, corporations will tell you to ‘stick to your knitting’. 

Now, there’s probably nothing wrong with staying in your lane when you’re a huge global household name measuring turnover in the billions. But if you never try anything new, you’ll never get more than you already have. 

For entrepreneurs, nothing beats trying it out for yourself. John’s story reminds us that no matter how much you’ve picked up from books, YouTube or even articles like this one, there’s no substitute for experience.  

Or, as Oscar Wilde would call them, mistakes. 

Because the real world is where the ‘aha’ moments take place, where you realise that there’s a better way.  

Failure is the fuel of entrepreneurship: so say yes to new opportunities, chalk up the learning experiences, and reap the rewards of making mistakes. 

Listen to more of season 3 of my Doing the Opposite: Business Disruptors podcast, as new episodes are released every fortnight. 

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