Entrepreneur 101: Learn from failure

Everyone makes mistakes. It's what you do with them that counts, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 25 Jul 2017

Dennis Waitley, the American best-selling author, once said 'failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end…'

Failure is often misunderstood, a dirty word, only to be whispered in hushed tones. Some of those closest to me have yet to achieve their full potential because of their subconscious fear of the ‘F’ word. In certain cultures, failing is taboo and carries individual and familial shame, like a metaphorical scarlet letter burning on one’s forehead. 

I prefer to see failure as a stern, yardstick-wielding, Victorian grammar school teacher – one I’m personally a pupil of. I call her Madame Failure.

Freewheeling Failure

The start-up world, as glamorised in the popular show Silicon Valley, sees failure as a badge of honour. Elon Musk’s oft-quoted saying ‘Failure is an option. If things are not failing, you’re not innovating enough’ is telling of this mind-set. Here in the UK, the highly publicised failures of Powa Technologies and VE Interactive - both former tech unicorns that have since crashed and burned - come to mind when I think of the freewheeling ways of parts of the start-up ecosystem.

While I see the merits of glorifying failure as is done in the ‘Valley’, these recent failures serve as cautionary tales and have got me thinking. How can we reduce the likelihood of a failure outcome? How do we harness failure as our teacher? Madame Failure has a dusty library stacked to the ceiling with the historical fables of failure, but they’re only of any use if we go seek them out…    

As Safe As Houses

The technology sector, while littered with colourful examples (Pets.com comes to mind), is not the only place to go if one is looking to learn from the great failures of our generation. 

Property is almost universally viewed as an investment safe-haven; the phrase ‘as safe as houses’ can be traced back to Victorian days. If we take the time to peruse Madame Failure’s library, however, we find a checkered history of property magnates who have built, lost, and then rebuilt their empires, following the ebbs and flows of the inherently cyclical property market. These history lessons, some of which are chronicled in Peter Bill’s ‘Planet Property’, should be on the mandatory ‘summer reading list’ for today’s property and proptech entrepreneurs. 

Forgotten Fables of Failure

While the Regus brand has become synonymous with flexible offices, many have forgotten that at the turn of the millennium, the business had to file for bankruptcy in the US after the tech bubble burst.  Fast-forward fifteen years, and the company now enjoys a market cap of £3bn and sits at the epicentre of the burgeoning flexible office movement. But the rapid rise of US challenger brand, WeWork, is creating waves across the sector, making even industry giants like Regus question their long-term viability. With demand in the sector starting to peak and a wall of new supply coming on stream, it is quite possible that another round of failures is on the horizon. Hopefully, this time around, the well-documented lessons of failures past will be heeded.

Another well-chronicled example from the property world is the story of the late Irvine Sellar, who sadly passed away earlier this year but left behind for us an unforgettable legacy. After a start in the fashion industry, Sellar moved into property in the 1980s. Hit hard by the downturn in the early 1990s, his business collapsed, and he had to start over.

Sellar, however, had paid attention to the teachings of Madame Failure, remained tenacious and persistent, and staged a comeback with the purchase of some land near London Bridge Station at the bottom of the market cycle. Against all odds, he pushed through the Great Recession, managed to raise capital from Qatari investors when capital markets were practically frozen, and transformed the unassuming site into what is now the Shard. The son of an East London shopkeeper, Sellar overcame failures that would have defeated many, and amassed a personal fortune of approximately £220 million by the time of his death. 

A Playbook for Failure

Failure is sector agnostic.  Entrepreneurs from all industries should know better than to ignore the lessons of the past. Whether you’re in tech or property, nothing is ‘as safe as houses’. With the rise of digital upstarts and challenger brands, and the unpredictable movement of market cycles, every leader and entrepreneur must have a ‘playbook’ for dealing with failure. 

We are fortunate that there is a deep reservoir of failure-mitigating knowledge available to us. Some of this is actually quite intuitive: be wary of the strength (or lack thereof) of your customers (as Regus learned when its tenants went bust); market cycles matter (as Irvine Sellar learned the hard way in the 90s). Madame Failure’s library holds far too many titles to be repeated here. I am convinced, though, that by becoming a scholar of failure, we should see less of it in our own lives. 

Final Thought

Studying failure, however, only get us so far.

There is no replacement for the cold, hard lesson of first-hand failure.  Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest athlete the world has ever seen, delivers this message as smoothly as a ‘swish’:

‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ 

Faisal Butt is founder and CEO of Spire Ventures.

Image credit: Barry Haynes/Wikipedia


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