Dealing with Failure


In business, you have to constantly try new things, because most of the things you try won’t work. It doesn’t mean they weren’t worth the attempt; it just means that the small business world is impossible to predict. Because none of us know beforehand what will work, we have to try many things that fail in order to reach success. As a result, one of the most important lessons for any small business entrepreneur attempting to grow a business is to learn how to deal with failure.

Scott Edinger, the founder of the Edinger Consulting Group, wrote this week for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network about this concept, the importance of knowing how to approach failures. “You will fail. It’s inevitable, so you might as well begin preparing for it now,” he writes. “How you handle that failure can raise or lower the risks of failing again—and shape your legacy as a leader.”

The best leaders are able to respond positively to failure and turn it into even greater success. Steve Jobs was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history—and yet in the mid-1980s he was a colossal failure. He was fired by his own company, Apple, and forced to start over. He moved on and spent the next decade learning from his failure until Apple begged him to return in 1997.

Edinger describes a few common themes he has observed in leaders who are adept at preparing for and dealing with failure. They are many of the same lessons we preach here at GoSmallBiz:

  • Acknowledge the failure and put it in perspective
  • Look for causes, not blame
  • Before you wrack your brain to think up an appropriate response, take a break
  • Get some help
  • Refocus your efforts and take action

If something you try, perhaps a marketing strategy, isn’t working, then you have to start by being honest with yourself about the failure. If something didn’t work, that’s ok—don’t pretend it’s a success just to avoid dealing with the problem. Once you’ve acknowledged the problem, try to figure out why it didn’t work. You don’t need to blame anyone—you and the people around you need to feel comfortable throwing out ideas and trying new things, and if the first response to failure is to cast blame, then those idea wells will dry up quickly. And don’t dwell on a mistake; take what you’ve learned and use that knowledge to improve your next idea. Don’t let a failure stop you from trying again—if you don’t keep constantly putting new ideas out there, you’ll never find the one that works.

Matt Tarkenton

Matt Tarkenton

Matt Tarkenton is Executive Vice President at Tarkenton Companies, and has started several businesses and is interested in business formation, strategy, and growth. He was part of a group that started Renova Partners, a boutique investment bank, and was recognized as a “40 Under 40: Up and Comer” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2009. Matt performs business planning and marketing training for hundreds of professionals across the country, and co-hosts a weekly coaching program on entrepreneurial education. Matt graduated from Princeton University, and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. He maintains his Series 7, 63, and 79 licenses, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Youth Villages, on the Education Committee of the National Association of Fixed Annuities (NAFA), and in leadership positions in various organizations.