Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Start-up Expert.

Sometimes failure isn’t the end, but a new beginning.

While fear of failing can stop would-be entrepreneurs in their tracks, actual failure provides many lessons for future success. How can you effectively mine that failure for all it’s worth when you’re faced with a crumbling dream?

The Benefits of Failure

Resilience: the knowledge that the world doesn’t end with failure

After you’ve failed at something, whether a test in school or going bankrupt with your first company, you learn an invaluable lesson: The world doesn’t end. You failed, so what? Yes, failure can have very real consequences. However, we have the ability to bounce back and continue with our lives. This resilience can allow us to continue down an entrepreneurial path, even when we know the possibility of failure remains.

Ability to Take Risks

Those who take risks are the most likely to fail. In business, though, taking risks can lead to the biggest successes.

Spurring of Future Growth

“Knowledge is power,” and “The more you know, the more you grow,” were popular public service announcement taglines in the 1980s. Their enthusiastic positivity continues to ring true, however. While failure is often equated with feelings of inadequacy and loss, we can capitalize to create future growth by cultivating a learning mentality and thoroughly analyzing our failures.

Reigning in the Ego

Another important benefit of failure is the way it can help us to keep our egos in check. We are not infallible – and that is perfectly OK. We’re going to make mistakes, but we have the opportunity to learn from them and to become better entrepreneurs and better people.

Learning from Failure

Failure provides more information. It can help us learn more about our target audience or the marketplace in general. It can inform our opinions on the best way to launch a service or product. By investigating the mechanisms of failure and learning more about why particular methods, services, business plans, or products didn’t work, we are armed with more knowledge to help propel us toward success.

To effectively learn from our failures, we must consider the different events that led to that situation and sift through the mistakes to pan for wisdom. These tips can help you to capitalize on failure and to find those nuggets that will aid you in achieving follow-on success:

Avoid the Blame Game

“A culture that makes it safe to admit and report on failure can – and in some organizational contexts must – coexist with high standards for performance.” (Edmondson, Amy; Harvard Business Review)

While there are circumstances for which blame, and the consequences that accompany it, must be assigned, doing so can serve to make the process of learning from failure more challenging. If those involved fear blame and punishment, they may be reluctant to come forward and take responsibility or to honestly describe the processes that led to failure.

Categorize Failure

Being able to identify where in the process the failure occurred can help you to learn more from the situation. For example, in her article for the Harvard Business Review, “Strategies For Learning From Failure”, Amy Edmondson mentions three categories of failure: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent.

Preventable failures include mistakes such as poor training and poor implementation. In the case of poor training, a better orientation process can be implemented to help prevent the same issues from occurring in the future. Likewise, poor implementation may be improved with better strategic planning and research. While some of these preventable failures may require that blame be assigned, it is generally more important to fix the mechanism(s) that facilitated the failure’s occurrence in order to avoid similar failures in the future.

Complexity-related failures are generally regarded as par for the course. While strategic planning is done in order to avoid them, complexity-related failures are seen as inevitable for many large organizations dealing with a multitude of processes. In this situation, it is necessary to identify the failures and then revisit the policies that enabled them to occur.

Intelligent failures are the best failures. That is, they’re the types of failures that occur because of trailblazing and experimentation. They represent the risks that entrepreneurs take to obtain results. For example, if you’re introducing an innovative new product to the marketplace, you risk failure because the product has never before been introduced. While you’ve performed your due diligence, researched your target audience, and participated in focus groups, there’s still a chance that the product won’t be well-received.

Even should the new product meet with failure, the occasion provides an opportunity to learn about introducing products to the marketplace, the kind of products your target audience desires, the price that your target audience is willing to pay for your product, etc.

Apple, which excels in the smartphone market, continues to listen to the marketplace when it comes to their iPhone. Thanks to information available regarding the types of features consumers desire in a phone, they’ve created phones of various sizes and colors to appeal to a broader spectrum of potential purchasers. While their iPhone 5c did not prove to be as successful as other models, they learned that most iPhone buyers appreciated the luxurious feel of the metal and glass device and were willing to pay more for it, even when a less expensive model was available. This knowledge freed the company to experiment with other features that ultimately proved more successful.

Focus on the Things Within Your Control

While there are undoubtedly some things in the marketplace you can’t control, there are plenty that you can. After you’ve categorized your failure and have begun to pick apart the pieces, identifying those elements that were within your control can help you determine how to better approach a similar situation in the future.

It can be easy to say, “The market wasn’t ready for my product,” but this places blame on the impersonal market, rather than identifying the factors that lead to failure. Focusing on the features of the product, how it was advertised, the audience to which it was advertised, etc. can aid an entrepreneur to better determine which factors were within their control and how they could’ve better approached or researched them. Similarly, it can help you to identify those elements that were out of your control, but for which you should remain alert in the future. For those who offer services instead of products, the mechanisms are the same despite the offerings being different.

Once you’ve tackled the arduous task of identifying and learning from your failures, you may be wondering, “How can I use the tools from my failures to propel future success?”

Applying the lessons learned can be difficult, but are a necessary part of future success. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who’ve successfully embraced their failures and achieved follow-on success.

From Failures to Success

Some business heroes have been practically canonized for their ability to go from business or personal failure to success. The most commonly heralded failure-to-success story is that of Steve Jobs, but he wasn’t alone in his ability to propel himself forward after failure came knocking. Here are a few other businesspeople who chose to keep innovating despite early failures:

Walt Disney

Disney is a household name, but before Walt started Disney Brothers’ Studios in 1923, the studio that would become The Walt Disney Company and eventually encompass amusement parks, full-length animated films, television channels, and a marketing empire, he failed and more than once. Disney started two companies before he and his brother found the right magic.

Mark Zuckerberg

While Zuckerberg seems to have hit the jackpot with Facebook, he’s found plenty of failure on the way. The successful social media website has made numerous mistakes as it works hard to not only stay relevant, but to innovate. Zuckerberg hasn’t shied away from failure and seems to be willing to readily admit his mistakes. Repeatedly. Why? Because he’s willing to learn from them and to pivot when necessary. From poor acquisitions to new features with which no one really bothered, Facebook is fairly open about where they’ve blundered, a pretty clear indication that they’ve taken the time to identify the lessons in each error.

Arianna Huffington

Chances are an article or two from the HuffPo have found their way to your Facebook newsfeed today. Prior to launching the now-ubiquitous Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington – author, columnist, and businesswoman – was rejected 36 times by publishers who didn’t see the appeal of her second book.

Eventually, she went on to co-found the Huffington Post to plenty of negative press. While initially rejected by the establishment, the Huffington Post has grown and the savvy businesswoman has recently stated she’s stepping down as the Editor-in-Chief to focus on her new company, Thrive. Huffington currently has fifteen published books to her name and is seeking to make a splash in the wellness market.

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One personal characteristic these entrepreneurs shared is that they had a vision and determined to see it through, regardless of missteps and failures. They learned and readjusted their goals when necessary. Ford and Edison faced failure, learned from it, and then had massive follow-on success. The lesson of their fortitude remains important.

To achieve follow-on success, it’s necessary to distill the lessons learned from failure and pour them into our next venture or into another component of the same venture. For example, a failed product launch can provide valuable information about launch techniques and timing, product design, and the needs and desires of the target audience. All of this information can go a long way toward making subsequent launches more successful.

Whether you’re facing failure and unsure of what to do or considering next steps after failure, take heart. You can succeed and you now have even more tools at your disposal to help make success a reality.

About the Author

Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).

Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.

Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.