In the process of inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison once said that he didn’t fail, he just found 10,000 ways that it wouldn’t work.
In this regard, it can be said that Edison’s greatest achievement is persistence rather than innovation, which should be of reference for business leaders and entrepreneurs in their pursuit of success.
Elysse Newman, associate dean for research in Clemson University’s School of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, said that while few people plan to fail, failure itself is an important step in the learning and innovation process.
“Failure itself helps us understand the limitations of what we know,” Newman said. “If it can teach you something, it’s always going to be useful.”
But in the business world, there is a tendency to try to control all the variables in order to minimize the risk of failure and protect the bottom line. While understandable, this could exacerbate risk aversion and stifle innovation, said Alex Estevez, venture partner at Accel and 2022 chair of the NEXT Risk Summit in Greenville.
“Innovation requires experimentation with Wrong,” Estevez said. “If we celebrate innovation, we must understand and accept the necessary ‘mistakes’ or failures involved. “
He cites the example of Accel’s seed investment in Stewart Butterfield and the project that eventually became Slack, the ubiquitous communications platform widely adopted by the business world.
The initial project, a video game, ultimately proved unsuccessful, but instead of giving up, Butterfield realized that the internal communication platform they had developed while developing the game was the real innovation.
Accel’s bet on Butterfield as a brilliant entrepreneur paid off, with Slack eventually being sold for $28 billion, Estevez said.
“It wasn’t always like this, but it’s a good example of not letting failure lead to failure,” Estevez said.
learn from failure
For entrepreneurs and startups, the risk of failure is real. It can be caused by a variety of factors, but careful planning and a willingness to learn from such failures can lead to success.
According to Marjorie Luke of Piedmont SCORE, careful planning is a critical first step in any new business. SCORE is one of the oldest and largest entrepreneurial mentoring organizations in the United States, providing a wealth of resources for entrepreneurs.
“The possibility of failure should be part of everyone’s initial business plan,” Luke said. “[Failure] Should never surprise you. “
It is not failure that leads to ultimate success, but the willingness to learn from failure and apply those lessons in a new approach.
That’s a crucial distinction, said John Moore, principal consultant at Greenville-based Momenteum Strategies. Moore, who often advises startups and their founders, cites another Edison quote about persistence: “Our greatest weakness is giving up. The surest way to succeed is to try again.”
“From a business standpoint, failure doesn’t have to be fatal, especially in one’s career,” Moore said.
While not advocating celebrating failure per se, Moore said entrepreneurs should be encouraged to try and start new ventures, even if they don’t succeed.
He added that it is important for the startup community to develop a support network that, while acknowledging failure, is also willing to give entrepreneurs the help they need to “get back on their feet.”
“That’s an important point — to keep the cycle going,” Moore said. “Results will come from hard work.”
Examples of failure paving the way to success
- Walt Disney’s first animation company, Laugh-O-Gram Films, started with $15,000 but eventually flopped when a major distributor collapsed.
- Milton Hershey watched three previous attempts fail before founding what would become a confectionary giant.
- Twitter co-founder Evan Williams saw a podcasting platform called Odeo, which launched alongside Apple’s iTunes, was about to fail. He terminated Odeo and moved on to a side project.