What We Learned By Asking Entrepreneurs About Their Biggest Failures

The dominant image of entrepreneurship today is one of a shiny, Silicon Valley tech man. It is also one of success, because brand and revenue pressures incentivise entrepreneurs to suppress failure and doubt. But this is a narrow view of entrepreneurship. Not only do entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, but failure, as well as success, is of critical and everyday importance to entrepreneurs.

Emojione_1F926.svgThis is why we recently gathered three diverse entrepreneurs to speak specifically about their failures. The aim was to paint a more candid, human and reassuring image of entrepreneurship by acknowledging (without lapsing into humblebrag) that mistakes are inevitable, just fine and often valuable.

Up first was Julio Alejandro, a former political journalist and now serial blockchain entrepreneur who has, by his own admission, failed three blockchain startups to date. Alyssa Chassman then confessed some of her failures in founding The IDHouse, which connects and educates young people around the globe to develop solutions to social problems. Closing the show was Vanessa Faloye, a social entrepreneur, social-enterprise educator, writer and facilitator. She spoke of some of her failings when founding Artikle 24, an organisation designed to provide alternative leisure activities for young people in recession-ravaged Spain.

Disagreements littered the discussion, which in itself shows the absence of definitively ‘right’ ways of doing entrepreneurship. But there were also agreements and common themes. I’ve summarised the key takeaways below. Hopefully they offer reassurance for anybody interested in starting a business: we all make mistakes, so the important bit is learning from them.

Get work experience first

Although he had worked as a journalist, Julio argued a lack of corporate experience before embarking on his ventures severely slowed him down. He also recalled plenty of young entrepreneurs, pursuing the young-prodigy narrative, who had crashed and burned, largely through lack of experience. This isn’t to say prior work experience is essential, but it does show that working in industry before founding a company would likely mean helping, not abandoning, your entrepreneurial ambitions.

Business meeting and teamwork concept

Get out!

When launching Artikle 24, Vanessa recalled strategising for days with her co-founders in a glass co-working cubicle. But what seemed like effective planning was, in fact, delaying invaluable testing and action. The importance of testing ideas and failing (i.e. learning) fast is something we constantly impress upon students. In Vanessa’s case, failure to heed this led to a misunderstanding of the problems her team were supposedly addressing, including missing deep-running divisions between some of the communities they were working with.

Identify your assumptions

Failing to identify the (often mistaken) assumptions you are making as an entrepreneur – something that usually requires getting out and about – can be fatal. In Alyssa’s case, she wrongly assumed students on one of her programmes would fully engage. Discovering – towards the beginning of a year-long programme! – that some students were not in fact engaging as planned led to all manner of issues down the line that could have been averted with some assumption testing.

Find, trust and delegate to good people

Julio, Alyssa and Vanessa all stressed the importance of finding supportive people you work well with. Alyssa distinguished ‘aptitudes’ (specific, surface-level skills, like Photoshop) with ‘strengths’ (deeper abilities, like design). She reported how a failure to realise this, combined with a failure to trust team members to delegate work to, not only retarded The IDHouse’s development, but led to her taking on far too much.

Think about your personal life

Entrepreneurship blurs the professional/personal distinction: it usually stems from a personal passion, and typically requires more time (and a different schedule) compared with the usual 9-5. Hence all three speakers emphasised the importance of thinking about how your personal life meshes with your business. Julio recalled how he was ill-prepared for the culture shift when moving from Chicago to London, and had to adapt the way he interacted with people. Alyssa acknowledged the ongoing struggle to balance work and personal time, to the detriment of the both. And Vanessa recalled how, ultimately, her love for travelling undermined her performance as a founder – something she hadn’t been honest with herself about initially.

Although these are useful takeaways, the more general lesson of the evening was that acknowledging (inevitable) failures is the first step to processing them constructively and learning from them. Vanessa encapsulated this idea when recalling a film screening she put on for Artikle 24. It was a complete disaster, she said. Hardly anybody came! But she also said it was the first time in her life she had felt like an entrepreneur, and this was really empowering. Failures can represent progress, if we learn from them.

If you’re interested in failing and succeeding as an entrepreneur, or even just informally chatting through an idea or learning some entrepreneurial skills, take a look at the many ways we can help here at Queen Mary and shoot us an email at enterprise@qmul.ac.uk

Sam, Enterprise Advisor and Coordinator

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