All entrepreneurs are united by the fear of failure
Originally posted on September 30, 2013 telegraph.co.uk/Authored by Michael Hayman
For every business that makes it, four crumble away to nothing, says entrepreneur Michael Hayman. Too often, failure is swept under the carpet.
“I got away with it.” The words Carphone Warehouse founder Sir Charles Dunstone hopes will be etched as an epitaph on his gravestone. Words that have stuck in my mind since I heard him say them.
In one short sentence he captured the least told chapter in the life story of many of our greatest entrepreneurs. That there rarely is a grand plan in place and that failure, and the fear of, it is every bit the co-pilot of success.
The modern myth of the entrepreneur is of the winner. The driven individual overcoming life’s hurdles with Olympian ease. The unstoppable force powering economic recovery.
But underneath this invincible surface is often a more brittle layer. The fear of cash flow out of control, not being paid, not winning a contract; the cost of a life where family, friends and loved ones can be the ultimate sacrifices.
For entrepreneurs who have successfully exited, these burdens have become the symbolic battle scars, the bittersweet but in the end uplifting fruits of victory.
But for every inspiring success story of triumph against the odds, there are a great many more tales of failure, of lives where luck ran out.
According to Aston Business School, of all the UK small businesses started each year a decade later over 70% will no longer exist. House of Commons statistics published in April 2013 state that, “there were 261,000 business births in 2011 and 230,000 business deaths”
These darker tales of woe are in every way a major part of the story of going into business for yourself; but they are largely hidden, metaphorically swept under the carpet, an inconvenient truth to be ignored rather than learned from.
Betfair founder Ed Wray told The Telegraph earlier this year that: “The fear of failure is the single biggest thing I think that holds back the entrepreneurial culture. The fear of failure, and the criticism of failure.”
He is right but there may be a further layer of the onion to peel – and that is how entrepreneurs themselves perceive and experience failure.
Failure for the entrepreneur has a completely different definition and consequence than for the majority in business and society. It is a modern day Gollum, not to be mentioned, not to be accepted until the fat lady has well and truly sung. It is so much more than a mere corporate set back, profit warning, or loss of employment.
Failure for the entrepreneur is a fear that is total and singular in definition. It is defeat. It is the end. It is death.
The death of your dream and all you have strived to build. Many entrepreneurs will go on to show phenomenal levels of inner resolve and bouncebackability, the word invented by Crystal Palace Manager Iain Dowie to highlight the spirit to come back from a losing position and win. Yet it in no way does this diminish the potent confrontation with mortality that failure represents for the entrepreneur.
At its most positive the fear of failure drives a surge of focus. It pits your wits against the world with the singular determination to win. At its worst it can become an all-consuming adrenaline fuelled drug to be recreated rather than avoided. What person in their right mind would reach the safe harbour of sale, only to risk it all again for the uncertainties of a new commercial adventure? The answer is the entrepreneur.
Driven and obsessive, survivors and winners, entrepreneurs see life in the most vivid and subjective of terms. What many might view as a life of achievement could well be to the entrepreneur living it one of unfulfilled dreams. Even those who have successfully sold a firm can often wake up expecting to experience a sense of freedom only to painfully realise that they lost it the minute they cashed the cheque on their dream.
When discussing failure, a great many entreprenurs I know will point to the States as the antithesis to what they view as the British attitude. They will point to a culture that embraces failure as an essential part of the entrepreneurial journey.
Many US entrepreneurs call it the Million Dollar MBA. A painful experience full of life lessons that enable the phoenix to rise again. After all, bouncing back is something that US entrepreneurs from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs and Donald Trump have built their legends upon. As Trump has said: “Sometimes by losing a battle, you find a new way to win the war.”
The contrast offered is of Britain as a society that will revel in failure. Quick to judge those that got their rightful comeuppance, those that were too smart for their own good, the modern day Icaruses who recklessly flew too close to the sun.
It is an argument that runs the risk of being glib and is based on the convenience of hope as much as experience. The reality is a great deal more nuanced – America undoubtedly offers the entrepreneurial dream, but perhaps no longer the pioneer reality of unfettered business success.
For one, I am not sure that the States is as forgiving of failure as many like to think. I have spent a good deal of time in America and it strikes me that the price of going bust can be every bit as harsh as on this side of the pond. I am not so sure that executives from august bastions of the American dream like General Motors or JP Morgan feel particularly forgiven.
And right now, even with recovery underway, the land of the free is not the most optimistic of places. US Editor-in-chief of Esquire, David Granger, recently wrote an editorial called American Dread asserting: “We are a panicked people, willing to believe the worst of everyone and everything.”
Britain, in turn, by no means has a default setting. While certain entrepreneurs have felt a savage reputational blow from failure, others have hardly lost a step along the way. Take Sir Richard Branson. A quintessential and unstoppable British winner. Well, yes, but he has also had his fair share of failures along the way. We remember Virgin Media and Virgin Active but have soon forgotten Virgin Cola or Virgin Cosmetics.
Perhaps we are more sympathetic of failure than many may at first think. Perhaps we are a great deal more empathetic of the entrepreneur especially when cast as the challenger, the innovator, and the one reaching for the stars. Perhaps the harshest critics of failure among entrepreneurs in this country may well be entrepreneurs themselves.
Make no mistake; the fear of failure is a major part of the outlook of some of the most successful people in this country. What is more is that it is a complex, painful and highly nuanced issue.
It’s why I think that Charles Dunstone’s ambition for his headstone might be the right one. It is not an ambition that will be judged on triumph and disaster, success or failure. It is an ambition that will have been judged on survival.
That is what it means to have got away with it.
Michael Hayman is co-founder of Seven Hills and co-founder of StartUp Britain