Learning from Failure: How to Dust Yourself Off and Be Better than Ever

  •    Freelance writer focused on web development, email marketing and baseball. He lives in Los Angeles, but wishes he lived in Tokyo.

If there is one fear that stands out for many people when they're starting a small business, it's fear of failure. That's understandable.

How will you pay yourself? What happens if your new product doesn't take off? What if people just don't like what you're doing?

Nothing Risked, Nothing Gained

Richard Branson quit school when he was 16 to started a magazine called Student. The Headmaster of his former school wrote him right after to say, "Congratulations, Branson. I predict you will either go to prison or become a millionaire." He would eventually go on to do one of those things.

Student magazine no longer exists, and it existed for very little time at all. Why? For the traditional reasons that businesses cease to exist: it didn't make money.

Branson hoped to create a magazine that would be the voice of his generation. When that turned out to be unprofitable, he could have just given up or tried to work for another magazine like Rolling Stone that had succeeded in what he was trying to do. Instead, he used the readership of his magazine to start a mail order company selling discounted records. This turned out to be much more profitable. And so Virgin was born.

This was easier for him than it might be for others, of course. He was only a teenager. He didn't have kids to take care of. No aging parents or a mortgage. But he's still a prime example of why failure is so valuable. It teaches you what doesn't work.

What Works and What Doesn't

John Dewey (famous early educator and surprisingly NOT the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System) said, "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from their failures as from their successes."

Failure is a necessary part of learning anything. No basketball player can be great at free throws until they miss a bunch. No writer is good with words until they write a lot of stupid ones (still working on that myself). No one is great at anything until they've spent lots of time doing it.

This is just as true of running a business as it if of anything else. You can't be a great business owner until you run a business. No one is just born with that ability. Embrace your mistakes. They're not actually failures. They're just experiences that make you better at what you do.

Build Failure Into Your Business

JK Rowling said, "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default."

If you know some percentage of failure is inevitable, then you can plan for it and build your business to absorb it. Don't let your business ride on the success or failure of a single product or single marketing push. Set yourself to have smaller failures that you can more easily adapt to and quickly iterate on so that you're less likely to face larger ones.

This means you should:

  1. Test, test and test some more. Whether it's developing a new product or marketing your business on social media, don't go all in on a single idea. Get feedback. Try different versions.
  2. Be prepared to have your heart broken. Customers are not going to like every idea you have. And that's fine. Even the funniest comedian occasionally bombs. Just quickly move on to the next thing.
  3. Take your time. Slowly build your business and make the leap into full time entrepreneurship when you're confident you can support yourself. That way early setbacks won't leave you scrambling.

Your business can't get off the ground if you don't stick your neck out at least a little bit. Launching your website, building a new product, opening a storefront, hiring your first employee — all these things are scary, and for good reason — each one of them might not work out. But success is not final, and failure is not fatal. Every successful business owner has made mistakes. The more of them you make, the less frightening the potential for future mistakes become, and the more successes and advances you'll find within those mistakes.