Learning Through Failure: Startup Edition

Failure is a fact of life. While some people prefer to gloss over that reality, I would rather embrace it. In any endeavor we undertake, no matter how successful it ultimately proves, we will fail in some small way. That’s a deeply humanizing truth, and while it may seem pessimistic, our failures (small or large) often hold the key to our success. If we can learn from our mistakes, we emerge stronger, smarter, and more resilient.

I’ve written previously about what we can learn from products that failed, and even highlighted a few prime examples of major missteps from some of the most successful companies in the world. While major corporations often experience failure, it’s an even greater specter in the startup world. Passionate entrepreneurs are launching innovative new ventures every day despite the fact that 90% of startups fail, as Neil Patel recently reminded us in Forbes. Thankfully, this harsh truth conceals a silver lining.

“99% of Success is Built on Failure.”

These words, credited to American inventor and businessman Charles Kettering, are a helpful reminder to all of us in high risk fields, and I think they’re especially important for entrepreneurs to keep in mind. Otherwise, why risk trying something new when the odds aren’t in your favor?

I’ve worked with many teams as they launch promising companies through my involvement in SparkLabKC, an early-stage technology business accelerator program in Kansas City. Given that 9 out of 10 startups fail, SparkLabKC companies are batting above average, but of course there have been several companies that failed to gain traction, find sufficient investment, or scale quickly enough to become profitable.

It’s tough for these founders when their compelling ideas don’t reach the heights they dreamed of, but, as smart entrepreneurs do, they learn from their experiences and apply them to what comes next. Recently, three such teams held an event to celebrate the lessons they learned from companies that didn’t make the leap and share their insight in a panel discussion (you can watch video of the panel here).

Zen and the Art of Failure: Lessons from the Startup Trenches

At the event, fittingly titled “Done, With Dignity,” entrepreneurs Kyle Rogers (formerly of Knoda), Julie Edge and Steve Stava (formerly of Creelio), and Eze Redwood (formerly of Prodigy Arcade) gathered at Village Square in KC Startup Village to reflect on what entrepreneurs can learn from companies that fail. Their insights ranged from the humorous to the heartfelt, and I’d like to share some of their most striking thoughts with you.

Branding

“If you’re a consumer-facing product, don’t include a silent letter in your name!”

Kyle Rogers co-founded Knoda (there’s that silent letter!), and while he shared this tidbit in a humorous moment, it contains a universal truth upon closer inspection: Make sure your product is easily accessible to consumers. Marketing and branding experts know that it’s vital to eliminate any confusion or barrier to entry in order to reach a broad audience. While it may not have dealt the killing blow, Knoda’s silent K kept their product from connecting with as many consumers as possible, and you can be sure Kyle will name his next venture accordingly.

Selling

“Be wary of nodding heads if potential customers aren’t buying.”

I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but Julie Edge of Creelio hit on a dilemma that many entrepreneurs face: What do you do when enthusiasm for the product is high but sales are low? Positive feedback can only keep a company alive for so long when it isn’t matched by sales, and in some cases praise can blind us from noticing the writing on the wall. Entrepreneurs must weigh positive feedback carefully, because while praise can feed the spirit, only revenue can pay the bills. If enthusiasm isn’t followed by buy-in, it’s time to pivot or move on.

Staffing

“It didn’t feel good because people weren’t in roles that they could flourish in.”

Eze Redwood’s experience with Prodigy Arcade speaks to a critical aspect of entrepreneurship: A company can crash and burn when the team isn’t well matched to their roles. Growing a business demands that people play many parts, so they stretch themselves to do what’s necessary even when it may not be what’s best. If this tension isn’t resolved in a timely manner, the situation can become untenable despite how strong the company is on paper. Quickly filling vital roles with people who thrive in them is a must.

Learning Through Failure

Of course, we never begin a new venture expecting to fail. Whether launching a new product or a new business, we’re fueled by our excitement and the desire to succeed. It is often only in retrospect that we can see the minor missteps or failures along the way. So how can startups that failed to meet their goals inspire us to view our own failures and successes differently?

One major lesson from the panelists at Village Square was to be honest with yourself and embrace the struggles you encounter. Reach out if you need help and give yourself the opportunity to leverage other people’s experience. Too often we only project our confidence, which builds a wall between our understanding and our reality. Instead, we can keep our passion alive and be confident and optimistic, but operate with a healthy amount of doubt. Otherwise, we aren’t open to the learning moments that come our way until it’s too late to benefit from them.

Panelist Steve Stava shared some great wisdom from his experience as a co-founder of Creelio. “I was always told not to make a Plan B, to give it all to Plan A” he said, before countering, “Have a Plan B, don’t crash and burn! (Ask yourself) what do you want to get out of this if the company statistically doesn’t survive?” This doesn’t mean giving yourself an escape hatch or an excuse to quit, but rather understanding the value that your experience is providing while you’re having it instead of waiting until it’s gone and looking backward.

“I have a hard time viewing this as a failure,” Stava said, “because to me failure is an endpoint where you stop trying, and I don’t know why anyone would stop trying. It’s all learning along a path.” If you’re learning something new and applying that knowledge, failure isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity.

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