Walt Disney’s first animation company went bankrupt before he created his entertainment empire. August Horch was ousted from his company before going on to pioneer what would eventually become Audi. Bill Gates’ traffic data measuring company failed when many states began offering this service for free.

All of these entrepreneurs have one thing in common: failure. Every entrepreneur that has gone on to experience success has at some point also experienced failure, most likely multiple times. What sets these people apart is that they did not let this failure stop them, but instead used it to propel them on to bigger and better things. 

In many ways, this is what defines a truly successful entrepreneur.

The fear of failing

In the world of business, facing setbacks and times of adversity are all but guaranteed. Embarking on a new venture and expecting everything to go according to place is naïve, as things can and do go wrong. 

A willingness to step outside your comfort zone and take risks are defining characteristics of an entrepreneur, and with this comes the possibility of failures along the way. However, it is the ability to reframe these as challenges to be overcome, and not insurmountable problems that separates the high achievers from those who fold under the pressure.

The fact that we are so hard-wired to avoid failure at all costs can make the fear of failure one of the greatest barriers for leaders to overcome, and the reason that so many entrepreneurs do not reach their potential. A reluctance to take risks and experiment stifles innovation and leads to either stagnation, or being left behind by competitors.

Failure as feedback

There are two responses to setbacks – either give up and prematurely end your entrepreneurial journey, or learn to embrace it and grow from it. Viewing failure as feedback is crucial for being able to take lessons from it, refine your approach and continue moving forward.

Business moves fast, and as a leader you can never stop the process of learning and developing. Encountering challenges and missteps along the way is important for highlighting the weaknesses in your knowledge or your approach, and taking this on board will ultimately put you in a stronger position.

Being an entrepreneur can be relentless, and in keeping everything moving it can be easy to neglect ensuring that you are moving in the right direction. Failures provide that opportunity to reflect on where you are going, and if your limited resources and precious time and energy are being spent in the right way.

Making a commercial success of a founder-led business

Failing forward

Popular science magazine, Scientific American, defined failure as “an essential prerequisite for success”, and there is certainly truth in this. In fact, this can be taken further and an argument made for the benefits of “failing fast”.

Given the negative connotations associated with failure, this may seem counter-intuitive, but often, so strong is the desire to avoid failing that some entrepreneurs will cling to an idea or enterprise that is simply not working. Being unable to recognise when something is no longer viable means an inability to pivot or course-correct when it is needed the most.

Startups usually operate with limited resources, and entrepreneurs who find themselves limping on with an idea that is destined to fail often end up in a worse position than if defeat occurred earlier on. They can become both demoralised and demotivated. Failing fast, especially while a company is still in its infancy and the stakes are still relatively low, means being in a stronger position to push forward with projects and ideas that are working.

In this way, failures can actually create the easiest and least expensive way to learn, and pave the way for the shortest path to success.

Failure is an event – not an enterprise

No matter the success story, every entrepreneur has experienced mistakes, setbacks and obstacles. What is important is being able to view these in a constructive light, as this is what will enable you to overcome them and learn from them. 

Avoid taking failures personally, or letting them define you or your business journey, and instead use what they teach you to continue moving forward – this time in the right direction. In business, the only true failure is to give up completely.

‘Not all investors are like they are on Dragons’ Den’