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Celebrating Failure

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This article also appeared in Finweek magazine in their 6-Sep-2012 issue

The American author Theodor Geisel, who wrote under the pen name of Dr. Seuss, was rejected by 27 publishers when he submitted his first manuscript. When he finally found a publisher, his 46 books including “Cat in the Hat”, and “Green Eggs and Ham” went on to sell nearly half a billion books worldwide.

Renowned writer JK Rowling shares a similar story. Her first book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was submitted to 12 publishing houses. All 12 rejected it. But then the number 13 turned out to be an incredibly lucky one for Rowling and the Bloomsbury publishing group. Rowling went from living on social security to being a self-made billionaire. In its 2011 world billionaires’ list, Forbes estimated Rowling’s net worth at US$1bn.

Looking at these phenomenal turnarounds, there are a number of critical lessons we can take away:

1. Hang in there

On the entrepreneurial journey, when things seem darkest and every door seems to shut on you, you just have to keep going. Every “no” brings you closer to that “yes” that will turn things around.

Colonel Sanders, well-known founder of KFC, drove around the US knocking on doors, sleeping in his car, trying to sell his famous fried chicken recipe to restaurants. After he was rejected 1009 times, he finally got one yes. Fast food would not be the same if he’d given up at 1008.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Stephenie Meyer, best known for writing the Twilight vampire series, was rejected or ignored by 15 literary agencies before the 15th agency gave her a chance. Her books went on to sell over 100m copies worldwide. The three Twilight films have grossed US$1.8bn globally.

2. There are positives in everything

Seven years after graduating from university, Rowling described herself as “the biggest failure I knew.” Recently divorced, she was jobless and broke with a child to support. Despite everything, she was able to recognise and embrace the positives in this sea of negatives. In a speech at Harvard University in 2008, she described her failure as liberating:

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Just like Rowling, you can choose to focus on the positive, which will help you make it through the tough times, and to turn failure into success.

3. Successful entrepreneurs embrace failure

Read about the turnarounds of Edison, Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, Richard Branson, Tim Ferris and many more. You’ll see this theme coming through strongly.

As Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward”.

Michael Jordan was kicked out of his high school basketball team. But he never let failure discourage him. He became the greatest basketball player, with a net worth of over $500m. Jordan had this to say: “I have missed more than 9 000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game’s winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

4. Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow

For entrepreneurs to succeed, failure has to be a fundamental part of the journey. You cannot get to that success unless you’ve tried and tweaked along the way. And if you don’t try, you’ve already failed.

JK Rowling summed it up brilliantly when she said: “You might never fail on the scale I did. But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

“Fail fast” is Silicon Valley’s current catchphrase, where investors are seemingly starting to forgive – and even welcome – entrepreneurs’ past failures. Dave McClure, angel investor and founder of 500 Startups, says “…fail on a regular basis, that’s how you learn. Ned Staebler, vice president for economic development at Wayne State University, told inc.com: “Investors have seen numerous resilient entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes and have a big success after one or more failures. Investors want to be a part of that success.”

In South Africa, sadly our culture is much less forgiving of start-up failure. And it shows in our low rate of entrepreneurial activity. Published in 2012, the 2011 GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) report found that South Africa’s total early-stage entrepreneurial activity (TEA) rate in 2011 (9.1%) has hardly changed since 2010 (8.9%). South Africa’s TEA rate still lags behind other emerging economies, with Brazil coming in at 15%. Our banks are reluctant to finance start-ups without personal surety, as they perceive the risks of failure to be too high. The harder it is to get financing, the less likely people are to become entrepreneurs. This has a knock-on effect: a weaker entrepreneurial sector is less able to create the jobs that our country desperately needs.

So how can we boost levels of entrepreneurship in South Africa? The problem is complex and multi-faceted, with no easy fix. However, as a start, our government should foster a culture that encourages risk-taking and forgives failure, and our legislation should be more entrepreneur-friendly. Looking at examples from other countries, in 2008 the UK government introduced Entrepreneur’s Relief. This means their entrepreneurs pay less tax when they sell their businesses. By contrast, the US toughened bankruptcy laws in 2005, and studies show this is retarding entrepreneurship. Why? To get more people to risk starting businesses, governments should make it easier for entrepreneurs to close shop and walk away from debt.

Entrepreneur-friendly measures in South Africa will give today’s entrepreneurs, and our youth, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, the space to try new things. With this backing and supportive environment, we’ll be able to realise the incredible potential of South Africa’s entrepreneurs to turn failure into success.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

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