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Peruse recent headlines on the subject of botched business and it begins to sound as though failure is actually a requirement for success: Failure is Good. Why Success Always Starts With Failure. How to be Good at Failure. In fact, we're increasingly hearing that to fail fast and furiously is the best path to success for a start-up venture.
Today's simplistic messaging seems to be saying we should aim to fail in order to improve our resumés. The concept of 'fail forward' – taking risks, learning from mistakes and moving on – is morphing into the notion of 'fail upward' – to fail with an immediate career upside. Multiple failures are viewed as badges of honour to proudly display, and we are told we will be rewarded for failing.
Failure of course does happen in business, but it should not be the goal. There's a big difference between fearing failure and seeking it.
When I started my own company in 2000, I didn't try to fail. We had a solid six-year run, eventually increasing share value and hiring 25 employees. Then hell broke loose when a clash between my investors took place. We ended up selling the business for a much smaller amount than it was worth.
Did I fail? Did I win? Does it really matter? The truth is, I learned a great deal. Even though my phone rang off the hook for close to two years with job offers, it doesn't mean I needed to fail in order to succeed. Rather, it was my willingness to take risks, give it my all, and learn from the outcome that put me where I am today.
Over the years, we've swung the pendulum too far towards failure. It's time to bring it back to a more reasonable discussion geared towards preparing for success.
At Mitacs, we work with many start-up companies that are promoting cutting-edge research. The lab is one place where failure is neither good, nor bad. It's merely the outcome of a hypothesis: sometimes you're going to be right and sometimes you're going to be wrong. Either way, it's important to adhere to good methodology so that your findings will stand up to scrutiny. In a research scenario, multiple failures are actually okay because it means you are answering important questions and advancing research.
Business failure is different. You may have a hypothesis that your business will change the world or that it will be a huge financial success. But when that hypothesis fails, it could be because you missed something in your due diligence or business plan. In other words, failure is not a free pass to do away with the hard work involved in laying the groundwork for success.
There are many mechanisms available to help decrease the likelihood your business will fail. For example, business incubators provide space and services to small start-ups at a discounted fee, and often offer coaching services from mentors as well as access to angel investors.
As well, Mitacs offers a program called 'Accelerate' that brings together grad students, supervising professors, and industry partners in internships, giving future entrepreneurs a proving ground to hone good business skills before they leave the academic setting.
Another interesting model is Montreal's TandemLaunch, which connects brilliant technologies from the world's top universities with exceptional entrepreneurs to help launch early-stage companies. Its Entrepreneur-in-Residence program provides $500,000 in seed funding and empowers up-and-coming entrepreneurs to build a start-up team, sources and develops a technology, and validates a market through relationships with leading consumer electronic brands – all important elements for success.
One positive development from all this talk of failure is just that: we're no longer afraid to talk about it. When I started out as an entrepreneur, I would have appreciated the opportunity to attend an event such as FailCon, a global conference launched in 2009 to facilitate sharing between people who have been involved in failed start-ups.
However, my goal would have been to learn from their mistakes, not follow in their footsteps. Starting a business is a journey. Failing may be a part of it, but the end goal should always be success.
Eric Bosco is chief business development and partnership officer at Mitacs. he works closely with governments, academia, and industry to promote innovation.