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The five best things about failure

Monday, 22 July 2013 | By Gavin Lower

Failure. It’s an ominous word that comes with plenty of negative connotations. Especially in Australia where success is celebrated and failure frowned upon. Just look at the adulation heaped on successful sportspeople compared with the ire directed at those who don’t meet expectations, like the Australian cricket team.


But for many in Australia’s entrepreneurial community, failure is not a scary concept. In fact, it’s embraced and welcomed for the learning opportunities it can provide, lessons that can take entrepreneurs further down the road to success.


As such, they say the attitude to failure in Australia needs to change so that entrepreneurs and start-ups are encouraged to take risks without the fear of being stigmatised if they fail.


Here’s what Aaron Birkby, a co-founder at incubator Silicon Lakes, AngelCube co-founder Adrian Stone, Blue Chilli’s chief executive Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin and Innovyz Start managing director Dr Jana Matthews, say are the best things about failure.


Learning from mistakes


It’s the most obvious thing to take from failure. If you or someone else has done something wrong, you know not to do it again.


Birkby, Stone, Eckersley-Maslin and Matthews all highlighted this as a key positive of failure.


“Failure is an opportunity to learn,” says Stone, while Birkby says: “Success can only teach us what works. Failure teaches us what doesn’t.”


Matthews says mentors at Innovyz Start take part in a panel discussion to talk about their worst mistakes and what they learned. “As people ‘go public’ about their mistakes and failures, others learn how to recognise the patterns and not make those mistakes themselves,” she says.


Eckersley-Maslin points out that “if you fail and lose a couple of hundred thousand dollars, you won’t do that again”.


Builds “character”


As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.


Birkby says failure builds emotional intelligence and intuition, with the “street smarts” fundamental to being a successful entrepreneur coming from experience.


“Those experiences are a multitude of varying degrees of success and failure, both of which teach us in different ways,” he says.


Eckerlsey-Maslin says failure teaches people to be humble about success. “We’re great at supporting the underdog in Australia, but we do have a problem with the `tall poppy syndrome’. Being successful can be confused with arrogance.”


He adds that failure teaches people not to fear failure.


Stone says while failure is “inevitable”, it’s part of the scientific process of discovery and should be embraced by business for the same reason.


Matthews notes that failure can reveal a lot about individuals in a team.


“When something doesn’t turn out as planned, does your team spend time analysing the data and asking why this happened, or shifting blame from person to person?” she says.


“Failure can be a crucible that enables you to learn the truth about people sooner, rather than later when it’s more difficult and expensive to make changes.”


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Provides motivation and boosts appetite for risk


“Humans are engineered to be motivated by both seeking pleasure and avoiding pain,” says Birkby. “So failures can become as motivating as our successes.”


Birkby also says that failure can build risk tolerance levels and courage, enabling people to take greater and smarter business risks in the future.


Eckersley-Maslin agrees.


“To be entrepreneurial you have to break rules and take risks,” he says. “With risk comes failure. Failure teaches you to push the limits.”


He adds that pushing those limits teaches entrepreneurs where the “edge” is so it can be avoided. “If you fear failure, you’ll never be there.”


Failing fast and early


Stone says failing fast and failing often is now a key strategy of a new wave of start-ups.


“It encourages businesses to launch much earlier than they otherwise would, and show products and services to their customers that may still have imperfections or even gaping holes, all for the purpose of seeing if their ideas can succeed or fail much earlier,” he says.


“If customers like what they see, the founders can quickly and iteratively improve their products. If customers don’t like what they see, the founders can get back to the drawing board much earlier and try and try again.”


Matthews also sees benefits in the fail fast and early concept. “It’s good to fail early, when recovery is easy and doesn’t cost much,” she says, adding that companies in ANZ Innovyz Start’s program “fail” and pivot several times during their 13-week course.


Don’t give up


Stone notes that it’s suggested Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before finding the right filament for his lightbulb invention.


“Where would be we if Edison gave up, even after the 900th attempt,” he says.


“You will probably fail in 100 small things and a few large ones as you try and start your own business; the only real failure is when you give up. It only takes one success to wipe out all of those prior failures.”


Matthews has a similar view, recounting the story of a college student asking an entrepreneur what they needed to do to become as successful as the entrepreneur. “The answer was: ‘Be prepared to fail at least seven times’.”


“Each time you fail, you can deduct one more from the magic number of `seven’ failures. But this only works if you take time to learn from something that didn’t turn out as expected. Study the pattern of problems, recognise the signs, and don’t make that mistake again,” Matthews says.


For Birkby, failure means that “you actually showed up in the first place”.


“True failure is really not participating at all.”