The F Word: Anna Guenther’s favourite mistake

The F Word: Anna Guenther’s favourite mistake
Idealog has partnered with Callaghan Innovation to take a look the nature of failure in business – the good, the bad and the unintentionally educational. So we’re asking questions: Is there a stigma, in this country, around ‘failure’? Is it a good thing to ‘fail fast’? Would you be wary of investing in start-up run by an entrepreneur with a string of failed businesses?

We’ll be presenting the results of our survey in a special feature – ‘The F Word’ – in the next issue of Idealog. In the lead up to that, we’ll be asking Kiwi high-fliers and heavy-hitters about what failure means to them, what they’ve learned, and what ‘mistakes’ they’re most proud of.

This time around we cornered PledgeMe founder Anna Guenther to find out the true cost of failure, lessons learned and whether it really is a deal breaker.

Idealog: What has your experience with the dreaded ‘f-word’ been?

Guenther: I guess for me the thing is it's not really 'failure', it’s more 'learning experiences'. The whole thing about being in business is about being resilient and going 'Oh, that didn’t work' and trying to figure out how to come back from that. 

For me, there have been big learning experiences around people. People are both the best and the worst thing when you’re starting a company and when they’re the worst thing, they’re really the worst thing. 

When you’re starting or growing a company you need to be really clear on expectations and document those expectations. You need to be really, really clear and just know that people are there - and it's a stupid old adage – for ‘a reason, a season or life’. And with companies it’s totally the same. Sometimes someone's right at a certain point in time, but not right forever. That has been my biggest learning experience and it's a thing that catches me out on a regular basis - how important people are and how much work it is to do that bit right. 

So how did that play out for you?

We were looking into appointing someone as a director on our board and we went through a bit of a process of meeting with them both individually and as a board, and it seemed like it was going to be really great, and then it was really, really, really not great. It turned into this thing of realising that we just had really different expectations of the way the company was going to go. It was the realization that when you’re bringing someone new into the business you have to be really clear about the expectations on both sides. 

Going into anything new, you just need to be really clear about what you expect - not just when things are going well, but when things aren’t going well too. And I think the biggest lesson learnt with this person was that, when things weren’t going the way they wanted, they weren't constructive about it. That’s something you need when you’re building a company. You can not like how things are going, but you have to put it in a positive, constructive light. 

How does the Kiwi mentality deal with failure? In the States for example, people can be really supportive of you even if you’ve failed – they’ll still back you, even if things have not worked out in the past.

New Zealand’s really bad at failure because it's set at a government level - if you fail you get cut. It’s the 'front page of the Dom Post' test - you can never do anything in government that's going to get you on the front page of the Dominion Post because if you do, you get cut. It’s the thing that scares every public servant ever and it means that you can’t fail, because if you do, that's the worst thing in the world. And I think that if that's set at a government level, it trickles down into everything else. 

And yeah, I agree, but I think it's almost going too far in the other way in the States. Failure is celebrated without worrying about the people it affects. It's okay for things not to work out, if you do it in a way that doesn't hurt people. I totally agree that in New Zealand we’re potentially too conscious around failure, but I still think but we have to be careful not to fail in a way that affects others. 

It gets pretty ‘cowboy’ in the States. You need to think about the ramifications of what something not working out means, testing and iterating as you go, and you sort of need to manage that risk and be aware of who it affects. 

So how does that affect the way PledgeMe does things?

From our perspective, we've got a million things in place because we’re a finically regulated company – seriously, a million policies - but I think, just from a practical perspective, what we do is test things in a small way before we scale them up; we test and see if people are interested in something before we do it; so it's a case of ‘figure out if something’s going to work before you go out and build it’. 

So would you be wary of dealing with someone who’s got a string of failures behind them?

It would depend on how they managed it. It’s really about how the others around you felt about it afterwards and I think that what’s more interesting than what failed is actually talking to the people that you worked with on a project that didn’t work out. How did you respond to that and how did you manage that? 

Do you think gender plays a part in the way people take that into account?

I don’t want to get too gendered about it, but I think there's a greater sense of community and concern for who's affected when a woman is looking at failure, as opposed to, sometimes, for guys, the culture almost makes them go out and be heroic and do the big crazy things. So yeah, I think there probably is a gender part to it as well.