The key to success may lie in how you define failure
Aiming for entrepreneurial success? You had better be ready to fail. A lot. Success stories abound, and rarely do we hear about the mistakes entrepreneurs have made along the way. But for entrepreneurs, mistakes hold the ingredients for success. In fact, the key to achieving entrepreneurial success seems to lie in the ability to redefine success and failure on the fly, and on one’s own terms.
From people in corporate jobs, “I hear all the time: ‘If I had the perfect idea, I would quit’. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of entrepreneurship,” explains Manish Sabharwal, co-founder and Chairman of TeamLease, India’s second largest private employer.New businesses rarely succeed on their original business plans. “Entrepreneurship at its best is like a laboratory experiment. We arrive at vision of what can be made better and changed, we test it in the marketplace, we measure its progress and we decide how to refine it, accelerate it, end it,” says Randy Komisar, mentor to dozens of start ups, and Partner at venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Therefore, failure is inherent to the process. In fact, according to Tina Seelig, Executive Director of Stanford University’s Technology Ventures Program, “It’s best to fail quickly and learn, rather than keep banging on the wrong nails, or with the wrong hammer. Try something different instead.”
When one drops behind the eyes of entrepreneurs, it’s clear that they see these failures not as personal blows, but rather as information and experience on which to build.
Mike Lanza, a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, who has founded five successful companies, explains, “I don’t believe in failure – maybe things don’t work out, but life is so fluid, life always throws up something good. For example, one company I started never got off the ground, but it made the next company possible – so I don’t consider that a failure.”
Manish Sabharwal discusses the journey taken by his first company, which tried several businesses before succeeding as an HR outsourcing company, “Were the life insurance and the pension businesses failures? Probably. But the question is: how do you define failure?”
This evolutionary progress played out in Manish Sabharwal’s first company, “We just kept mutating. Entrepreneurship is the art of staying alive long enough to succeed. Of course, you may run out of runway, or investors may pull the plug, but part of the art is managing that.”
What if the investors had pulled the plug? “I would have taken the business plan to ING or Sunlife. I would have implemented it somewhere else, financed it differently – it would have been a different kind of project. I wouldn’t see it as a failure,” concludes Manish.
Sometimes one does have to shut down a company. In that case, “I think you have to redefine success – maybe the company doesn’t make it, but you become an expert and build your network in a great market space, and you become a consultant and sell that expertise to others,” says Mike Lanza.
This attitude towards failure and the ability to redefine success along the way highlight a skill critical for entrepreneurial success: adaptability.
“Entrepreneurs have to have ‘intelligent flexibility’. Of course you have to stick to your guns, but at a certain point, you have to adapt. Maybe you build your product and the market feedback is bad. Or by the time you’re ready, there are too many similar companies in the field, and some of them are ahead of you. You have to change what you’re doing,” explains Mike.
“The hallmark of the successful entrepreneur is the ability to be passionate and driven, and at the same time dispassionate, objective, and honest about whether you’re doing the right thing, or need to change what you’re doing,” explains Kanwaljit Singh, co-founder and Partner at Helion Ventures.
If entrepreneurs don’t regard business challenges as failures, does that mean they never fail? No. And their surprisingly consistent definition of failure may reveal the core of the ‘entrepreneurial mindset’.
“The only time I’ve ever been disappointed is when I try to be something I’m not. When I try to conform to someone else’s thinking. When I feel I have not been “true to myself”,” is how Mike Lanza defines failure. Manish Sabharwal’s definition ran parallel, “It’s when you ‘lose the faith’.”
Prakash Mundra, a young entrepreneur just two years into his journey, explains “I would consider failure when one’s life is too much controlled by society’s pressure and not by one’s heart.”
What shines through in these comments is a true independence of mind. Entrepreneurs live in a world where they set their own measures for success, and failure. And it’s this freedom from the common perspective that may enable entrepreneurs to see opportunities where most others do not; and liberates the entrepreneurial mind to innovate and create. As Heidi Neck, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson, says, “Fear of looking like a fool is the number one barrier to creativity.”
Some individuals may be born with an inherently independent nature. Others may achieve the independence, in which case, context matters. In India, achieving this freedom may be more difficult than in some other cultures.
“Particularly in India, in this context, we are born and brought up to be successful in certain visible ways: ‘my son earns X million Rupees’ or what your title is. These are considered very important manifestations of success,” explains Kanwaljit Singh. “I think for society, success is who you are externally – for example, where you were educated, versus what you learned. This results in fear of failure.” And this creates barriers, says Kanwaljit, “For corporate executives, concern about being seen as a ‘failure’ is a huge barrier to getting started. A supportive culture does help," believes Randy Komisar. "Genuine entrepreneurs are natural optimists.
But if they don’t have a supporting culture, their optimism will take a beating. A place like Silicon Valley is not distinguished by its infrastructure, or capital, or intellectual talent – it is distinguished by its culture of accepting momentary failures as a way of life and encouraging entrepreneurs to keep trying and to reinvent themselves and their ventures with the benefit of experience.”
Kanwaljit does see a change starting in India, “In India, a new attitude has just started emerging in the entrepreneurial community. If the entrepreneur has given it an honest shot, and has been willing to take the risk, that is worth something.”
The emergence of role models is one element contributing to the more supportive climate. Manish Sabharwal explains, “We don’t really have a track record of failure from the past 5 – 15 years. It’s too short a time.
We’re just starting to have role models; it’s changing today.”
Developments in education are also encouraging young people to think more entrepreneurially, more independently. Many institutes of higher education are starting to incorporate entrepreneurship in their offerings. These programs usually include exercises that require students to solve problems, and provide the opportunity for them to experience “small successes and failures – where there is no given ‘right answer’ – in a risk free environment,” describes Tina Seelig. This marks a clear departure from the lecture-based, standardized-testing system that dominates.
The decrease in societal pressures, encouragement of critical thinking in schools, and the emergence of role models are changing the entrepreneurial landscape in India. Within an increasingly supportive culture, it may be easier for more individuals to develop an entrepreneurial mindset – one characterized by independent judgement and the freedom to define one’s own successes and failures. This would be good news.
“Failure, defined as the inability to achieve one’s objectives, is a matter of life for entrepreneurs and those that support entrepreneurship. Without the chance to fail, no one has the opportunity to achieve great things,” summarizes Randy Komisar.
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