Banishing the shame around business failure

In the past we’d write somebody off for having tried, and been not successful in a new business venture – these days we’re much more inclined to encourage them to dust themselves off, and get on with something else.

I’m putting the proposition out there that we’re getting over our collective Kiwi hang-up about startup and business failure.

peter kerr idealogThat is, whereas in the past we’d write somebody off for having tried, and been not successful in a new business venture – these days we’re much more inclined to encourage them to dust themselves off, and get on with something else.

From that point of view, we’re becoming much more American in our attitude to ‘failure’, and as long as it is failure for the right reasons, are inclined to regard it as experience.

This was the basis of a speech I recently had the privilege of giving to the NZ Institute of Patent Attorneys in Wellington.

Now, there’s no academic research that’s been carried out on this change in our collective attitude; not that I could find anyway.

And, in checking with Professor Sally Davenport of Victoria University’s School of Management, she doesn’t believe there’s been any study of this kind either – but being ever-entrepreneurial herself, would be keen to research the topic if some funding was available.

In talking about some of the anecdotal evidence for the proposition (see below), Sally made the following observation.

“It is how these things become normalised. We’re getting over the tipping point.”

So, and based pretty much on a gut feel, here’s some evidence that we’re collectively over a tipping point with regard to business failure.

Lightning Lab

This Wellington (and nationwide) initiative to fast track good ideas into investor-backable businesses saw nine February startups, pitch to would-be financiers in May.

Four of the startups garnered over $2 million in investment between them. Just as notable in a September press release was the unashamed dealing with and description of what the unsuccessful fund-finders were up to.

Some are still building their business model, one’s taking an amateur sports funding concept to South America, and the other teams have moved onto other ventures. But, they’ll all be back for Lightning Lab II next year. To all extent and purposes, this Lightning Lab press release was a recognition, if not a celebration of failure, and of its absolute value.

TIN 100

The TIN 100 report, or in this context, the discussion around the report, which came out in late October.

TIN 100 report founder Greg Shanahan gets to meet a fair number of the founders of these companies, including those of the TIN 100+, those smaller companies (less than $2 million annual turnover) hovering outside the main group.

“Most were baby boomers, most were grey-haired,” says Shanahan.

What he didn’t say, but is sure to be the case, is that a fair number of these CEOs will have known previous non-success.

This age group belies the notion that all entrepreneurs are in their twenties – and backs the stats that it is older people who actually begin more startups than younger (see a couple of studies, here and here).

The other ‘advantage’ of baby-boomer entrepreneurs is we’re more prepared to have a go. At our age, failure is in fact NOT trying.

The Dead Startup Society

A couple of years ago, the idea of getting together to commemorate a business failure would’ve been an absolute non-starter. But the packed-out attendance of this offshoot of Lean Startup Wellington on November 20 showed how cathartic people found the experience (I’ll get up next time to demonstrate my non-success).

As the Dead Startup Society said on its Meetup page:

“Many of us have been involved in startups that have failed – some quietly, some spectacularly, most somewhere in between. Come along to reflect and share our failures and the lessons we’ve learned from them.”

If there is anything that demonstrates a change in attitude, it is an ability to take the mickey out of ourselves.

Laughing about failure, after you’ve swallowed its bitter pill, takes away its stigma.

This part of our New Zealand tall poppy syndrome (the knocking machine) is no longer the invisible anchor preventing those of us who have failed for the right reasons, from getting out there and having another go.

Live long and prosper – as Star Trek’s Spock would say.

This post originally appeared on Sciblogs and sticK