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“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
– Winston Churchill
“Even when I’m on my back, I never back down.”
– Lil’ Wayne
It is well-baked into the narrative of American innovation and entrepreneurship that we not only accept but embrace failure. The greatest among us have failed repeatedly; the failures among us are merely waiting to fight another day. Whether the outright failure of our enterprises or the countless little failures that make up our days, a great entrepreneur is constantly learning from and pivoting around the sine waves of noble experimentations.
My favorite summary of Americans’ comparative attitude towards failure came appropriately from a very successful investor friend of mine who is French: “Failure here, unfortunately, is a blot on one’s honeur. But for you Americans, it is at most scar tissue. You take the sword, heal, and fight another day wiser and more strong!” Vive l’entrepreneur Americain!
There is no doubt that an acceptance of failure is part and parcel not only of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the United States, but growing ecosystems around the world including Endeavor’s emerging markets and beyond. The narrative, though, belies one very salient fact:
It sucks beyond almost any human experience. It eradicates our resources, both financial and emotional; instills in us the malignancy of self-doubt; allows us to think too much about what other people say (or whisper to others behind our backs); and worries us that we have let down family, friends, employees, investors, partners and others who were so thrilled at our audacity to build. Future VCs SAY they respect you for failing, but many wonder –- or you are always wondering if they wonder — “does he or she have the stuff?”
This rather prosaic litany, of course, begs an obvious question: why do it?
And the answer is prosaically simple: because you have no choice. You simply have to.
Whenever I consider advising or investing in an entrepreneurial idea, I try desperately to keep the founder away from her pitch for a time and focus on who she is. What has she done in the past? Where does she come from? Why is she going down this path now? Why does she care?
But one of the most intriguing questions is: what will she do if her idea doesn’t work? It is not a trick question, nor do I labor long over it, but it gives a sense of the person’s mindset. The answer, “Failure is not an option, and here’s why,” shows a nice hint of audacity and commitment. “I’ll learn what could make the idea better and go at it again” shows a desire to win. “I can always get a job at McKinsey” may not be utterly damning, but certainly is an interesting thread on a potentially unraveling sweater.
Entrepreneurs have no choice. They seek no alternatives. They want their idea in their teeth. As often as not, this kind of independent, near fanatical drive in the face of statistically likely failure makes them unhirable in most “jobs” in other, larger, potentially safer organizations. And they don’t give a damn.
If you re-examine the litany of failure sucking above, I’d suggest the greatest take away is that it is almost entirely in one’s own head. Obviously we have to pay our bills. Certainly we don’t want our mothers worrying about us. Maybe, and depending on why we failed or how we handled it, it may be hard to get the next meeting in some quarters. But when we move away from the conspirators in our own heads, it is amazing how the passion and creativity that made us try in the first place helps us to find ways to meet the rent, allow our Moms to sleep at night, and find the team and investors who appreciate that the narrative of failure is true.
I received the best one-liner from a start-up founder recently, when he said, “I founded my dream on $1,060 and an amazing array of mistakes in the first iteration which taught me what to do in the second.” Incidentally, I loved that he didn’t round down the figure but added in that $60. It told me that to him, every dollar mattered. It wasn’t “around a thousand bucks”; it was to the buck. But the larger point was that he articulated what he had learned in his failure and embedded that learning into his next version. I understood why his idea was beginning to grow exponentially.
By the way, this entrepreneur is located in Alexandria, Egypt and to my knowledge has never visited the States.
A final thought: for the record, I’d appreciate someone acknowledging me as the first to connect a British Prime Minister to rap music…
Christopher M. Schroeder is a Washington, DC based internet investor and advisor, and CEO of internet companies including his most recent, healthcentral.com –- the leading collection of interactive experiences of health seekers sharing their experiences and inspiring actions. He has been spending extensive time in the Middle East exploring and writing about the rising entrepreneurial activity in the Arab world and thinks Endeavor is the smartest idea whose time has more than come.
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