Fail fast! How often have you heard that as an entrepreneur or small business owner? With the Bay Area frenzy of startups and its relentless culture, this mantra has become more and more common.
Have you ever started a venture with the intention to fail? I’d hope not. So how do you recognize when your idea is failing? And how do you deal with the following feelings of failure and let the people involved know about the failure?
I had the luck (maybe?) to finally fail at a project recently. I knew I wasn’t above failing, but it just hadn’t happened to me yet, so I felt an unjustified sense of eventual success. And this venture just felt too good to fail. People loved it. LOVED it. And sadly, some still love the idea, though it just couldn’t work. The project and to some extent, I failed.
To give some more background, I work in entrepreneurial development with the University of Nevada, Reno and the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada in an entirely unique and thrilling position. I get to help foster the ecosystem around campus and the city to encourage startups and successful ventures. As such, we tend to focus our efforts on big, risky and scalable projects since they likely are going to pay off the biggest.
Fortunately, I have been raised in a family of women entrepreneurs that mastered small business, so that’s where my comfort zone lies. And I felt like while we as a group were focusing on the big risks, we weren’t paying homage to the backbone of American culture: small business. And in particular, retail businesses.
So after being inspired by the Calling All Dreamers Competition in nearby Sacramento, I knew we needed it here in town. And quickly, without much work, the city was abuzz with the competition. I was featured on the front page of the local paper, had television and radio interviews. We received multiple inquiries in how to participate which was thrilling – validation right!? And I built a diverse team that I knew I could work with that had varied skillsets. These were the things that I knew, and taught, to be important.
But then, I didn’t realize that there was a participant that was incredibly integral and hadn’t been consulted: the landlords. And they were not willing to put their properties on the line. My value add to them was both unclear and not enough. A critical part of the pitch was missing.
And so after seven months of hustling on a nonprofit endeavor that was only meant to be part-time, I had to call it quits. But instead of being upfront about the failure, I hid.
I hid from the board members, community partners and even the competitors. Because I didn’t want to admit a failure. I hadn’t had one yet and yes, I knew they theoretically existed, but I was stubborn and had many things working in my favor – how could this be happening? It must be me. As mentioned in prior posts, I suffer from depression and you can imagine that this episode triggered a depressive period for me. Failure is not so easy, no matter what the people from the Bay Area say about failing fast, and when much of your feeling of value rests in your work life, failure becomes intolerable.
Finally, two months too late, I wrote to the competitors that had entered the competition and let them know that the competition, the nonprofit and I were failing. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. I literally cried while composing the email to the competitors – these were people (and mostly women) who were hoping for a leg-up in achieving the American dream. To let them down felt intensely personal. They wanted to chase the same dream that I’ve spent my whole life for.
And the backlash of vitriol that I expected? None whatsoever. A few of the competitors wrote me back and said that they appreciated my efforts, were sad that they couldn’t continue with the competition but that it didn’t matter, they were inspired to charge after their goal anyway. So not only was admitting my failure not the complete disaster that I assumed it was, but it served to inspire me further. These people were amazing and I should not feel bad for trying to serve them better. And now I have found other outlets to deliver to this population and ways that are not as reliant on other community partners to buy-in. In every failure, a lesson to be learned can be applied to the next venture.
So how do you recognize when a project is a failure (and you’re just as stubborn as me)? When do you hit the wall and nothing makes a difference? When do you wake up dreading the tasks ahead? When are you more drained instead of inspired by the project? That’s when you need to get out. GET OUT! It’s difficult to give an exact moment to know when it’s time to get out, but if you felt that any of the above questions pertained to your situation, it’s time to re-evaluate your priorities.
Remember that failure is surprisingly not the worst thing that can happen to you. In fact, in many instances, it might be the moment that inspires you to take the next leap, or let you know what projects are not worth your valuable time, or a failure may let you know of your skills that need to be improved. And occasionally, a failed project will let you know it’s a bad idea, and to not waste any further money on the venture. All lessons are valuable, if difficult medicine to swallow.
Written by Krysta Bea Jackson