Opinion

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Failure is a privilege

5 Mins

I wanted to be a world class biochemist, an admiral, a dancer – but not an expert in failure, let me tell you. But, through experience, I became one. 

Mine was not a series of failures, it was a biggie. It was the third business I was involved in, a global one, and it crashed just around the time the business world started collapsing, in 2008. 

I led an online venture, one of the first in the crowdsourcing space. We started in 2003, before crowdsourcing even had a name. It was a marketplace that sourced creative concepts for advertising, layouts, scripts and other ad ideas directly from authors and sold them directly to companies without the mediation of an advertising agency. We’d raised funds and developed the concept with legal and advertising professionals to a workable business to business model. It was considered innovative, democratising, in the foreground of a wave of internet novelty – all of which it was. It was also one of the first of its kind, and therefore incurred a very high cost of evangelisation of a market not ready to interact via the internet in a way that a decade on is considered fully normal. 

But, we had just begun to survive as a business – right before we crashed, and while it was for years many people’s darling, in the end it was nothing but a failed business, and I a failed co-founder and exec, even if I’d been named one of the 1,000 most influential British business people not long before that.  

In Silicon Valley terms, I’d earned my stripes, but from a European perspective, a little less so. This had been my third (ad)venture, and the two previous ones were successes by any standard. Even OpenAd, my third eventually failed venture, succeeded in a number of ways, but not as a business, and that was all I – or indeed many people around me – could see. 

I was asked how I would ever face the world again, when I had no way of answering the question myself. I did go straight back to work, and then my body and soul failed me, naturally. What followed was a bleak time, which I would in many ways rather not remember and yet I am constantly reminded of. I clawed my way back in all the ways I knew and was learning how. Now, as a survivor of this crash, unwittingly, I have become considered an authority on returning from the abyss. It seems there is often a need for the input of someone who’s been through business hell and back, even if for me, having lived through it, it’s just an episode. 

The advice I give to companies pertains to growth, be it by international expansion, by acquisition, by innovation, some of the areas of expertise I have developed in twenty years of heading businesses. But when it comes down to it, it seems some of the most valuable advice I can give is that of a survivor. 

Fear of failure is, however objectively we look at it, one of the greatest obstacles to growth. Fear is necessary and should drive us to an objective assessment of the facts where they’re available to make reasonable decisions based on our risk appetite and tolerance. The reality is different. What I’ve seen very often in companies and individuals – and my younger self – is a binary attitude to failure: either we ignore the possibility altogether, or believe that the probability of failure doesn’t apply to us. We believe we are the ones who will make it against all odds.  This is the attitude of many first time entrepreneurs who decide to go for it – not ‘why would it be me who succeeds’, but rather – ‘of course it will be me’! 

And that’s not a bad attitude to have – if somewhere, however deep inside, one has a grasp on reality and one’s one capacity to survive the failure should it occur. It is impossible to prepare fully for a life crash, and unless you’ve survived it, you won’t be able to gauge what it might feel like. It’s not that courage is overrated, it’s that caution seems underrated.

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