Failure: An important step on the (bumpy) road to success

Brid-Aine Parnell

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Entrepreneurs with failed businesses and products behind them are often more mature and more savvy businesspeople – something that should encourage struggling startups.

With all the buzz around entrepreneurship in Europe, there’s one word that tends to get silently mouthed rather than shouted out… failure.

Failing Forward is an event that’s been running in Brussels for the past three years, getting successful entrepreneurs up on stage to talk to newbies about the dark secrets of their past – namely that many of them failed before they succeeded.

“We kept hearing from entrepreneurs that at some point they hit trouble on the entrepreneurial journey, but when things are not going as expected and they’re hitting the wall, many entrepreneurs get the feeling that it’s just them in this situation and they’re doing something wrong. In many cases, this misperception is keeping them from persevering,” explains Karen Boers, managing director of Startups.be, which runs the event.

“This triggered us to reach out to more experienced entrepreneurs to see whether they would be willing to share their personal history. Because in many cases, if you talk to them one-on-one, they do admit that they’ve faced hard times as well; that they’ve had negative bank accounts, and missed opportunities, and product failures and even outright bankruptcies.”

Startups.be, which supports Belgian technology entrepreneurship, wanted new businesses across Belgium and Europe to hear these stories of failure, particularly from those who were able to pick themselves back up and either start something new or persevere and find success.

“I think failure is necessary to be successful,” Boers pursues. “Failure has many faces, of course. I don’t think, by default, that we should all go bankrupt twice to become a successful entrepreneur! But, in any type of business, in any type of entrepreneurial journey, you will face things that don’t work out at all as expected. And I do think that learning to cope with those situations and coming up with a strong solution will make you a better entrepreneur and more successful in the end.”

Failure can be a spur to success in all sorts of different ways. In the first year of the event, Belgian entrepreneur Peter Hinssen spoke about his first firm e-COM, which he set up all the way back in 1995 to build intranets for international clients. After selling the company to Alcatel-Lucent, he stayed on with the company in business development, but eventually, his vision and that of Alcatel-Lucent diverged and they let him go. He described being fired from his own startup as a spur that has kept him going through many subsequent successes, using his anger to drive him and learning the lesson that a business doesn’t have to be sold on or relinquished to be a success.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, successful entrepreneurs haven’t always been that keen on coming forward with their tales of woe, but that has changed over the last few years of the event, according to Boers.

“When I first reached out to successful entrepreneurs a few years ago to ask them to come and testify about failure, they were very, very hesitant. Even at that point in their career, they were quite afraid that this would tarnish their reputation. But now people don’t seem to be so shy, they understand why this is important… that it’s going to provide value to other entrepreneurs and the ecosystem at large,” she explains.

The event not only provides new starts with the opportunity to hear these stories, but also allows them to network with successful businesses and potentially find mentors or friendly advisers who can help them when their bump in the road comes up.

What’s really difficult is finding the balance between encouraging entrepreneurs to keep going, while also helping them to realise when it’s time to let go.

“It’s very, very hard to convince an entrepreneur to either stop or continue  it’s got to be a gut feeling. But they have to learn to at least ask themselves or people in their direct environment that question or be able to reach out mentors. Because, as an entrepreneur, you don’t want to let go of your baby, you don’t want to fire the people around you that you feel responsible for. So it’s a tough decision make from an emotional point of view,” Boers stresses.

In the US, investors tend to prefer entrepreneurs who have already failed at least once, because if they’ve had a business or a product that didn’t work and they’re still going, it shows that they’ve learned more about their market. European investors have tended to prefer shiny new entrepreneurs with a great idea, but that is slowly changing, thanks to a growing sense that failure can often be just another step on the road to success.

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