By Khaled AlSaleh
Failure is terrible. It’s a word we often associate with losing. And yet, when I failed, my so-called failure led to my working for an excellent company and doing something I truly enjoy. So I’m here to reassure you that failure can be a step forward.
Over a year ago, when I had the opportunity to start a new venture, the possibility that I might fail never crossed my mind. I was reminded time and again that if I failed, I’d be left unemployable. But this wasn’t me; I had a brilliant career and every reason to think I’d succeed. I was told to visualize success, and so I did.
I had met a company in South Africa that wanted to expand to the Middle East, and everything about the idea seemed promising. They were a small firm with a great track record and a spectacular team. After a few rounds of meetings and interviews, we agreed to set up an office in Dubai in April 2010.
So what caused us to fail? It was a gradual process. We underestimated our competition, overestimated the value of our proposition, mispriced, and entered a fiercely competitive market at a time when incumbents were hungry for business at any price. We simply did not get enough business. It was a lonely day in Dubai when I was told that the company’s “Middle East experiment” simply hadn’t worked out and we would have to call it quits.
Yet, while failure is awful, I learned a lot by not succeeding. As Edison once said: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Here are some of the lessons that I took away:
1. Assess your next investors wisely.
Investors have families, responsibilities and bills to pay. When they choose to take a risk on you, don’t treat it lightly. Next time I face potential investment, I won’t jump on the opportunity, but rather will carefully assess my chances of success.
2. Learn what you don’t like to do.
Successful businesses aren’t successful because of a grand idea or a brilliant team. They’re successful because they execute well. Starting a business is like wearing a tight wetsuit; your flaws are accentuated and you feel exposed. But you learn quickly what you can and can’t execute well. Before starting this adventure, I had a good idea of what I enjoyed doing. But once I slipped into the wetsuit, I realized just how little I enjoyed cold-calling potential clients. Cold calling is an extreme sport; the highs are great but it can be crushing when companies say no. It was crucial to learn what I didn’t like doing.
3. Build a structure that keeps you sane.
It’s fun starting a business, and it’s easy to let it take over your life. But it’s also inherently lonely and stressful, so don’t let it consume you. It’s important to make time and do the things you enjoy doing, like going out for a run, staying healthy and staying in touch with your friends. I let all that slip, and it definitely affected my mood.
4. Find a good mentor.
After we failed, I went into survival mode in order to keep supporting my family, and I was lucky to have a mentor guiding me at the time. I met up with him less than a week after the business folded, when I desperately needed guidance. He’d successfully started a similar business and had invaluable advice. He alerted me to mistakes we made, especially the fact that, in our marketing approach, we hadn’t properly minded our Ps and Cs (product, price, promotion, place, consumer, cost, convenience, and culture).
5. Bring What You’ve Learned to Your Next Job
My mentor also helped me build a list of companies to target for my next job. Prior to each interview, I prepared by researching each company, practicing interviews with friends, and thinking about the lessons I had learned. I now had great answers to the question, “Tell me about a time when you had failed.” Not only did I have stories, but I wasn’t shy of admitting my mistakes. Within three months, byAugust, I was gainfully employed, doing something I enjoy.
I felt that interviewers admired both my honesty and my self-awareness. Many people want to be entrepreneurs, but very few venture out on their own. Most of the better employers want someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. They knew that if you had succeeded, then you wouldn’t be at the interview now, but having a true entrepreneurial spirit is still more important than claiming one.
So, to all you would-be entrepreneurs I’ll leave you with this: the worst that can happen if you fail is that you’ll learn about yourself and get closer to having a job that you truly love. Will working another year or two in a job you don’t like bring you closer to that? Probably not. So prepare for success, but appreciate failure.
I’ll part with the words of successful regional entrepreneur Habib Haddad: Yalla Startup!