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UMKC Innovation Center
UMKC Innovation Center
By Sarah Mote
April 04, 2014

How Can You Call It Failure?

Jeff Shackelford, executive director of Digital Sandbox KC, is back again, this time with his take on "failure." Jeff has a unique and diverse professional background with a rare combination of Fortune 100 enterprise experience coupled with entrepreneurial, startup and early stage ventures. He has a successful track record of raising equity capital of more than $500M.

Fail, photo by Flickr Nima Badiey

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with no fewer than 200 entrepreneurs and early stage business owners in the Kansas City metro area. As we discussed their past and how they had come up with their current business idea, it struck me how many referred to previous idea or ventures as failures. Many times I heard “after failing with my first idea, I came up with this one” or “a previous venture failed and that drove me to start this one.”  

Each time I would ask them the same question, “Did you learn anything from the experience?”

And 100 percent of the time the answers I got back were something like “I learned more from that than anything else” or “I know so much more now about building a successful business” or “I know a lot of things not to do now that I didn’t know then.”

So my reply was always the same, “Then how can you call that a failure?”

For many years, I’ve tried to come up with a better word for startups that flame out or close their doors. I’ve felt that “failure” was the wrong word and had too many negative connotations.

Do we label the world’s greatest scientists and researchers as failures if their experiments fail to prove the initial hypothesis? Do we label an inventor a failure if his early attempts at a new invention don’t work?

Henry Ford went broke five times before he succeeded. I suspect he learned a great deal more with each iteration and that without the early setbacks (and great persistence), he may have never arrived at his point of success.

The point is it’s not failing, it’s learning. And how do we learn? Through experimentation. And do all experiments succeed? Absolutely not!

The only way we fail is if we fail to learn from our experiences.

James Dyson, the inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner, built 5,127 prototypes before he landed on a one that worked. He looked at each of the previous 5,126 “failures” and learned from them. Each adaptation got him one small step closer to his goal. It would only have been failure if he built the exact same prototype 5,127 times expecting it to work differently each time…after all the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. It’s the ability to learn, adapt, modify and continually experiment that drives genius.

Put another way, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

For many entrepreneurs, their success was built through a process with many steps (some might call failures).

It’s normal for early-stage companies to fail. As a matter of fact, if we want Kansas City to become America’s most entrepreneurial city, than we should strive to have lots and lots of so-called failures.

Entrepreneurship is a numbers game. It’s like soccer (shout out to the MLS champion Sporting KC). The more shots on goal you take, the more likely you are to score.

The more companies we can get started in KC, the more likely we’ll have many big successes…and yes, we’ll have many that “miss the net” and go out of bounds, but those entrepreneurs can’t stop shooting the ball or we’ll never score at being a sustainable entrepreneurial hub.

Like soccer, more people buzzing around the net means more people taking quality shots and more quality shots = more goals. So, more entrepreneurs buzzing around the city starting companies means more quality startups and more quality startups = more big successes.

So for all those entrepreneurs who have ever started something that didn’t turn out as planned: just remember, each time you are willing to tell your story, share what you’ve done and discovered how much you’ve learned from the experience, it becomes very clear that failure isn’t the right word at all. Someone suggested closure and maybe that’s it. The doors may be closed, but the lessons you’ve learned, the milestones you accomplished and experiences you’ve gained are forever ingrained in you and those who helped you.

That’s entrepreneurship and should never be labeled failure.

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