Impact Entrepreneurs Need to Fail in Order to Succeed

By Maura Dilley

Most of the American entrepreneurs we all know, from Howard Hughes to Mark Zuckerberg, are introduced to our collective memory as plucky dreamers who set out on an impossible journey to achieve his or her singular dream and against all odds, won.

This story leaves out significant information regarding the hard and daily work of failing and re-launching product lines, pitches and entire businesses. Appreciating this back story is particularly important for social entrepreneurs who are working against an additional timer – the countdown to social and ecological meltdown. It is a nail-biter.

But the seriousness of the sustainability cause is all the more reason to employ every improvement strategy possible to make our sustainable businesses successful and one of these strategies is becoming a student and admirer of Failure.  To move fast, we need to conduct experiments – minimal viable products, mock-ups of our strategies, feedback loops that track user reactions. Plenty of failed green businesses have proven that people don’t want green businesses; they want better businesses, which are also green. So we have to make the goal to learn as fast as possible because our sustainability mission alone will not deliver a sustained business.

From FailCon 2012, the conference for founders, developers and designers sharing failures and preparing for success, Lean Startup author Eric Ries said that, “Uncertainty is on the rise everywhere, everything is getting faster and every company is becoming a software company. This is the reality of the entrepreneurial landscape in this day and age.” This insight changes the competitive landscape for everyone, demanding that we perform and practice the entrepreneur’s favorite dance move, the Pivot.

Any entrepreneur who is building a company for love – so every entrepreneur – is myopically obsessed with their business. For the impact entrepreneur, they are also deeply concerned, often emotionally connected, to their issue, be it carbon solutions or access to water. Impact entrepreneurs are often called “passionate.” This is meant to be a compliment, but what happens when passion blinds a high potential startup and keeps it from really serving the causes they intended to? We need to cultivate the skills, like integrating lessons from failure, into our work.

Hacking the Don’t Listen to Them Creation Myth

Part of the problem goes back to that creation myth about how the entrepreneur becomes a huge success by not listening to people who tell him or her, “Stop, it can’t be done!” Unfortunately, in practice, that message manifests into entrepreneurs who have an aversion to listening at all, cultivating a habit of ignoring feedback as a protective mechanism that keeps the dream from getting bruised.

The founders and accomplished entrepreneurs speaking at FailCon call plugging your ears useful information, failure, and trying out an idea that doesn’t work in the end, experimentation. One speaker, Branden Kowitz from Google Ventures related the entrepreneurial dream to a warm bed and listening to feedback from testing to a wet, cold commute to the office.  Chip Conley from Joie de Vivre Hotels called it, “The art of humility and humiliation.” Either way, learning to love failure feels like learning to love cold showers. Nevertheless, the key to a sustainable and sustained business is knowing that failure is a critical part of success and, to reap the rewards, you have to make failure work for you.

image: palomar5 via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

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One response

  1. I could not agree more!!! The ability to be agile and move with the flow of information is a must, but it is also important to keep looking at the new information from failure through the lens of the dream.

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