The books tell us that entrepreneurs are determined, ambitious, hard-working individuals with all the will in the world to see their vision become a reality and their business succeed.

What the books don’t tell us is that all the hard work and determination in the world doesn’t guarantee success.

More importantly what the books don’t prepare us entrepreneurs for is failure. Failure when in business isn’t an outcome we talk about because it isn’t an option – but unfortunately it is a reality.

Enterprise Ireland tells us that entrepreneurship is alive and well in Ireland with approximately 26,000 starting a business in 2017 and almost 18% of the entire population involved in an early stage business of some kind.

With this in mind, isn’t it time we face the topic of failure to broaden our understanding of success and support entrepreneurs to feel more comfortable with the possibility of failure?

I speak so openly on failure because I’ve experienced it, still continue to, but I have dealt with it, and continue to deal with I in such a way that I have learned to allow it, welcome it even.

I left school at 16 with no formal qualifications at all, so needless to say, despite wanting to succeed, I wasn’t sure how to.

This move, which many thought a bad one,  and one that wrote me off as a failure, delayed my focus and definitely made getting ahead more difficult. But this decision gave me my first big business lesson as an entrepreneur – I learned very early on that I only had myself to hold accountable and rely on.

I took a gamble and got involved in the property market at 21. I focused on buying, selling and letting commercial spaces and carved out quite a good name and career in it initially until I went bankrupt in 2008.

The property crash was a new type of failure – I felt it wasn’t entirely my fault. This was my first insight into building up resilience and not allowing failure to define me.

A year later, recognising the increasing value of digital, I started a web design agency, 3SIXTY Create, from a repossessed house in Belfast. I sold small websites and used contractors to deliver the work as I’d no cash flow to pay full-time employees.

By 2012, I’d grown the business to a turnover of £200k and had three full-time employees but with no funding, no overdraft, no credit cards and essentially no safety net, I quickly realised my failures had led me to place where I had to be more measured, more careful.

I was soon introduced to Robert Pierce of The Pierce Partnership who was running digital agency called The Tomorrow Lab, as one of three businesses within the partnership along with a brand agency and a printing management service.

In 2015, we decided to merge 3SIXTY Create and The Tomorrow Lab, bringing together a combined business with 13 staff, turnover of approx. 0.75m and over 300 clients.

Who knows, perhaps 3SIXTY Create would have gone on to be everything I wanted, perhaps I dodged failure that time around.

I will never know but what I do know is that failure at some point of the entrepreneurial journey is inevitable. The more successful you are, the more failures you will have to go through.

When faced with failure, here are my learnings on how we can all overcome it.

Be brutally honest and face the issues head on

The longer your attempts to ‘fix things’ go on, the deeper the problem will become. So first up, look at the situation objectively to figure out why you’re not reaching your goals.

Take control of whatever you can as this  will help you to feel you’re in a manageable situation, rather than becoming the ostrich with its head in the sand. 

This was one of the hardest things I had to do back in 2008 but I believe my honest and straight-forward approach, by letting clients know sooner than later, allowed me to retain the respect and trust I had worked so hard for. I left having still held on to something of value.

Redefine your understanding of failure

When you do fail it can be hard to feel anything other than shame and disappointment. The negative associations we have with the word failure take over.

I learned that the more I focused on those feelings, the more likely I was to doubt my ability. Separate the failure from you as an entrepreneur.

So,  you haven’t found a successful way of doing something (yet) – it doesn’t mean you are the failure. There is usually a direct correlation between the amount of failures and successes in someone’s career, it’s just hard to see it like that when you’re in the middle of it.

It’s also ‘usually’ never as bad as you actually think it is at the time. Responsibility, experience and time help you understand that. For every mistake I made, I realised there was a learning. For me, the key is learning to be comfortable with the possibility of failure by knowing there will be a positive outcome in some way.

Re-channel these learnings

Don’t wait around for the next thing to fall in your lap. Harness your experiences and let them drive you. You could be completely walking away from a business, or maybe just a part of it, but the message here is the same – take what you’ve learned with you.

I try to instil this culture in our team at The Tomorrow Lab – it’s okay to fail, so long as we learn from and use that failure to better our future output.

Set manageable goals but do think BIG

You will naturally be more cautious second time round and in my experience that’s a good thing. Set smaller goals this time so you can identify hiccups sooner and shake up your approach before it’s too late. This should help you to become more comfortable with the possibility of failure too.

I would also caveat all of this by saying that most of the truly amazing businesses out there threw caution to the wind at some stage, took huge risks and all of the exciting stuff happens when you do that. Experience and failure are the things that allow you to balance this and make a more measured decision.

Adrian Allen is the managing director of The Tomorrow Lab. It’s event series, #TTLPresents, returns in September and takes place at Belfast City conference space, LIFE Centre.  

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