Don’t fear the F-word

Adjusting and persisting are key to getting benefits from a venture gone south

The popular start-up adage goes, “Fail early, fail fast.” In all honesty, that’s pretty useful advice in a lot of situations.

The other adage with start-ups is that you don’t run out of money and that, at times, dragging out the process of shutting down a business — stretching the cash as far as it will possibly go — can be both costly and emotionally draining. It also could leave you with nothing but what is known as a “zombie,” a company that should be dead but is not.

So if failing fast is the way to go with an idea that didn’t make the grade, the trick is knowing when to close up shop and move on. Ask five famous faces from the speaker circuit and you’ll get five answers. But there is consensus about the need to take away benefits from a negative experience.

It’s the entrepreneur’s luxury that she can adjust course, that she’s not locked in. So embrace the idea that something that didn’t work can still take you to a good place. Failure is only truly bad if you don’t learn from it.

“People who truly fail are the ones who think their original idea is the way it has to be,” says Debbie Gordon, CEO of S3 Asset Management. “You need a viable starting point but then you have to be willing to adapt quickly and decisively.”

Gordon made such a decisive move when she launched S3 — which handles end-of-life surplus management and electronics recycling for businesses, government agencies and higher education institutions — after seeing demand for its services while running Snappy Sales, a franchisor of online consignment stores. She realized S3 was a model different enough to warrant standing alone from Snappy, which still runs a network of stores in the United States and Asia.

Pivoting your business is hard but you can make it easier on yourself and your team if you’ve shared your vision and made clear that things may not turn out exactly as planned. One Jumpstart Foundry alumnus says there’s also the risk that your company — especially if it’s very young — will be perceived differently.

“Know that everyone is going to compare your path with some existing success,” says Jayme Hoffman of Wax, a mobile video venture that has gone through a number of pivots during its existence. “Things will get very scary when your path starts to change because of a pivot. Just remember that all of those success stories were all very, very unique from anything else out there at that time. It’s OK if your path doesn’t sound like Dropbox, Apple or anything out there. Just keep hustling and you’ll figure it out.”

Gordon invokes the famous Yoda quote, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” If you go into a venture or a project with a fear of failure, she says, you simply aren’t going to be able to go all in and give it the energy and passion it needs to succeed.

“The word ‘try’ implies that it might work or it might not,” says Gordon, while an entrepreneur needs to be sure of herself while staying open to tweaking her journey.

 
Reach out

It has become a well-worn trope in Silicon Valley that failure and flexibility in a venture are to be worn as a badge of honor rather than some sort of scarlet letter. And any start-up ecosystem looking to move forward and grow must celebrate and support those who have tried, then seen the error and corrected course, or simply failed and moved on to their next idea. They’re not the exception: Half of all new businesses close their doors by the end of their fourth year.

Having strong support networks is crucial. It’s no coincidence that one of the most important cogs in Nashville’s entrepreneurial boom has been the impressive roster of mentors that have rallied to support new ideas and businesses. And even if you’re not directly hooked into that network, Gordon says there are huge benefits to bringing in outside voices who can help you move forward — including by sharing stories of failure.

Gordon spoke to an Entrepreneurs’ Organization conference in Charlotte earlier this year about how she has handled failures in her career. Almost immediately after she stepped off stage, she was approached by audience members commending her and sharing their own stories — as if they suddenly had been given license to talk about their failures.

To Gordon, it spoke to how much entrepreneurs internalize their fear of failure and how much their self-worth is dependent on their success. She has since begun working on a book that features successful entrepreneurs talking openly about their failures.

More broadly, she says, sharing experiences and ideas with your peers is a good strategy regardless of how your business is doing.

“One of the positive attributes of a good entrepreneur is that you’re positive and headstrong,” Gordon says. “But you may just leave a trail of dust and not realize you could be doing things differently. The times when I’m so sure of what I’m doing that I don’t think I need any help is when I reach out for help. I force myself to ask for it.”

— Geert De Lombaerde contributed to this story