If a book about failures does not sell, is it a success? – Jerry Seinfeld
Failure lies concealed in every success, and success in every failure –Eckhart Tolle
Conventional wisdom says you learn more from your failures. After all, nothing assists an healthy dose of introspection and “lessons learnt” sessions than wondering how to repay the loan you took from your father-in-law. Or being stumped about how to present the latest balance sheet to your investors. After all, conventional wisdom says that to fail, and to fail often, is the right thing to do. Failure is the mother of all success. All inventions. All enterprises.
Nope. In my experience, failure sucks. Big time. And research (biased, of course, since I searched specifically for it!) says that “failure does not lead to success. In fact, startups fail as often during their second startups as first-time entrepreneurs – 20%.”
My company just turned 10 last month. Before I started the Suyati journey, I had 2 failed ventures as an entrepreneur. Within Suyati, I headed a successful content outsourcing unit for 7 years, before moving on to becoming the Communications officer at Suyati. So did I learn more from my failures? Ha ha!
But first, a brief history of my 4 startups
Startup 1: Tech Consulting firm – January 2001 to August 2002, Indiana, USA
I quit my 6-figure paying job and started my tech consulting company in February of 2001. I placed a couple of technical guys in companies like Charles Schwab, became preferred vendor for Eli Lilly and GM when… yes, you know what’s coming – the worst ever terrorist attack happened on American soil on September 11, 2001. Everybody went into shell shock and I closed my business within 6 months of 9/11. I was pregnant with my second daughter and moved on with my life.
LESSONS LEARNT from failure #1: Nada. Blamed Al-Qaeda squarely and firmly.
Startup #2: Coffee Franchise – July 2007 – June 2010, Kochi, India
Between Startup 1 and 2, we moved from Indianapolis, Indiana to Kochi, Kerala. I spent a couple of years as a freelancer, helping local companies with their marketing content while our family settled down. Then came the startup bug again. I became a franchisee of a National coffee chain (nope, you would not have heard of it) in my hometown in Kochi. Within 18 months, I aggressively opened 3 stores – one near a popular girls college, one at Infopark, and one inside the Naval Base. All dream locations. I even converted the store at Infopark into a Coffee and Book nook and tied up with a leading National book chain. 2 years after I started, I was barely breaking even and the initial capital we had planned on investing had all dried up.
Luckily, a new opportunity came up when my husband started Suyati Technologies in April of 2009. I was convinced that the tide would not turn any time soon for the coffee shops and that it was better to sell off the whole operations at a (highly) discounted price. By the time I sold off the entire operations in April 2010, I was working full time at Suyati on my third startup.
LESSONS LEARNT from failure #2: Nada again. If customers prefer Rs 10 chai versus a frothy chai latte that costs Rs 40, not my problem.
Startup #3: Content Crossroads, August 2009 – December 2016, Kochi, INDIA
At Suyati, I was focused on building the website and the content, when one of our IT services customers asked if we could help create some content (read: cheap SEO blogs). That was the time marketers were trying to outwit search engines with content stuffed with keywords to rank higher on search. We got a contract for 6 months, and since my background was in editing and writing, and since we were a startup, we thought – why not? Any income was better than no income! We started Content Crossroads, as a subsidiary company of Suyati Technologies, in August of 2009. My third startup.
Cut to December 2016. 12,000 pieces of content, 80 clients, 24 industries, 4 continents, 99.99% approval rate, using 130 writers (all of them freelance) and an in-house built software for writer management – all in 7 years and 5 months. But we wound it down as the industry was slowly shifting to more curated and though-leadership content which is very difficult to ghost-write. The content marketing industry had changed and we needed to accept it. Our writers were pretty good, but not so good that they could write CXO level trending blogs or thought leadership content.
Lessons learnt: Since the work was mainly done by freelancers with the help of a writer management tool, I had a 2-member team – an editor and a coordinator. We had a good run and had great fun while it lasted. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and the personal learning when creating, editing and managing the content was immense. We made very good money too. However, since we did not technically run it as a separate business entity (Suyati team created and maintained the software, and its admin team helped with payments and payroll), we did not worry too much about its viability or profitability as a separate business.
Startup #4: Suyati Technologies, April 2009 – Present, Kochi, INDIA
Last month, we celebrated Suyati’s 10th anniversary as a successful IT services and product company. Multiple accolades, very good YoY growth, and a successful product company spin-off later, I was finally part of a successful venture. In its true sense. And to me, it is only at Suyati that I truly learnt from my successes. For instance, the three most important personal lessons that I learnt?
Excellent ideas and creativity can only get me so far: I was great at ideating. I could come up with multiple solutions for a problem. But when it came to executing it, I sucked big time. I did not have the ability (or the patience) to break it down into doable and measurable activities. Nor did I have the persistence to follow up and ensure the activities were done in the right way. At Suyati I learnt the art of delegating and the art of project management.
I cannot do it all: I started the first 2 startups on my own, thinking I can do it all. True success came only when I started to work along with a bunch of other talented individuals, all motivated and hungry enough to succeed. The dynamics of working with equally talented people is that you truly learn by watching others go about their work.
Giving and receiving negative feedback is an art: I was a great people person, but hated giving or receiving feedback or negative criticism. When I started Content Crossroads, there were times I would rewrite content instead of sending it back to the writer for rework. But all that completely changed. Delivering content meant I had to keep myself open to feedback from the client on every piece of content (and there were 12000 of them) so we could refine it. And delivering content on time every time meant the writers had to get precise feedback so they could quickly turn it around. I soon learnt the difference between being nice to people and getting things done with people.
So why is it (nearly) impossible to learn from failures?
Here is my theory on why I learnt more from my successes than my failures. My guess is that it applies to many of us also, though we prefer to brand them as “My Failure Lessons” and show it off as a badge of honor.
Failure bruises our ego
Nothing truly hurts us as much as being branded as a failure. All the hopes, dreams and planning we do when we start a venture is now in the dust heap. We ignored countless people who told us that it could not be done. (Those negative people!) We ignored multiple signs that foretold that a business is doomed from the start. Even after 9/11, I kept planning on things to turn around within a quarter. I ignored the fact that the Coffee franchise was not doing well in other states and was slowly winding down. I ignored the fact that I had not done my due diligence when selecting the franchise.
Failure hurts us so much that we start looking for reasons and excuses. Which leads me to the next reason why we do not learn from failures.
Failure prefers to play the blame game
I blamed Al Qaeda for my consulting failure. I blamed my customers’ lack of taste and preference for bad quality for my coffee shop failure. Since our ego is so hurt, it hunts down even the smallest of events and excuses to blame, so that it can feel better. So it can look better in the eyes of others. So it can sleep at night.
Failure is only one side of the coin
Failure and success are two sides of the same coin. It is impossible to learn about failure without truly experiencing success. It takes a mind, grateful and slightly ecstatic from the success, to finally sit down and introspect on what went wrong. Our ego finally creeps out of the hard shell that it had built around it, and is ready to face the truth on what we did wrong the last time around, and how we got it right this time.
When we remove common denominators between a failed and a successful venture (hard work, great ideas, passion, and commitment), we realize that success is indeed fickle. It needs a miracle of being at the right place at the right time with the right product or service idea. And that, truly, is the main lesson I learnt from 4 startups.
First posted on my Linkedin account: