Inevitable, essential failure


  • Columns
  • Monday, 21 Nov 2016

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Failure is an inevitable and perhaps essential part of entrepreneurship. Even very successful people have had their share of failed ventures. The key thing is to learn when you’ve fallen, and that’s how you move on to success.

Q: I am a recently failed entrepreneur. I quit my 9-5 job and worked for two years trying to bring my idea to fruition, but my product never made it to the public. I know failure is part of the process, but I don’t have another idea at the moment, and I need to put food on the table.

The problem is now that I’ve gotten a taste of the entrepreneurial spirit, I’m having a hard time going back to another day job where I help to fulfill someone else’s vision. What advice do you have for someone who has failed, but who wants to get back on the horse and try again? — William Harvey, United States

I think your determination to pick yourself up and bounce back is quite admirable — you should be proud of that attitude.

It’s not easy, but if you’re thinking about your next move, you’re already heading in the right direction. And you’re right: Failure is an inevitable — and essential, I think — part of entrepreneurship.

I’m no stranger to failure — I’ve had many things go wrong over the last 40 years in business. But I’ve succeeded because I haven’t let disappointments hold me back, and you shouldn’t either.

However, before you start a new venture, it’s important to look back and figure out what went wrong with your first business. After all, you wouldn’t get back in your car after an accident without checking it out first.

With that in mind, here are four steps to accepting failure and moving on to success:

Don’t let it get you down: Failure can be emotionally taxing. As an entrepreneur you put a lot of time, effort and money into your business, so watching it crash is heartbreaking.

But rather than let your emotions control you, take a step back and remember that you’re not the first entrepreneur to have failed, and you won’t be the last.

Many brilliant business people have failed numerous times. People like Reid Hoffman, James Dyson, Vera Wang and Arianna Huffington all experienced failure before they became successful, so don’t let adversity get you down. Instead, devote your energy to focusing on the future.

Take time to analyse: When a business goes wrong, it’s important that you take the time to determine what happened.

Did your product not function properly? Was your marketing not suitable? Did your service not meet the needs of your customers? Spend time with people who were involved in your startup and objectively analyse the problem.

This is not a time for pointing fingers or assigning blame — it’s a time to reflect and gather data.

In my case, the time that we got it most notably wrong at Virgin was when we launched Virgin Cola years ago. We proudly declared war on Coca-Cola by driving a tank around New York City and smashing through a wall of Coke cans. This was possibly one of the biggest mistakes we ever made!

Coca-Cola was (and still is) a huge, well-established company with budgets to match. When we started our soft-drink business, Coke increased their marketing budget and put pressure on distributors not to work with us.

If we’d had the foresight to know this would happen, we might have taken a different approach. After later analysis, we determined that we were woefully underprepared for Coke’s response. More importantly, we broke our No. 1 rule by going into the soft-drink market in the first place: Virgin is only supposed to enter new industries when we can offer consumers something distinct from what already exists.

There wasn’t an opportunity to do that in the soft-drink industry, because consumers already had a product they liked at a price they were happy to pay.

Plan carefully: Once you’ve worked out where things went wrong with your startup, decide what you will do differently next time. You might come up with an entirely new approach, or you might decide to bring different people on board to help in areas in which you’re not an expert.

Whatever approach you take, make sure that you take the time to sketch out some ideas and run them by people you trust for feedback.

Don’t let fear hold you back: Feeling down about a failed enterprise is normal and natural. But you should make sure that trepidation about future failures doesn’t discourage you.

Embrace fear, learn from it and move on to your next business venture with courage and the knowledge that if you don’t hit upon a success, you’ll have the will to do it again and take on the next challenge.

As my son, Sam, says: “If you’re learning from your mistakes, then you can never really fail — you’re just on a constant journey to success.” Good luck! — Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Send them to Richard.Branson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.

Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. He became an entrepreneur at 16 and made his first million at the age of 25.


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