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Entrepreneur ‘failures’ can be heroes too

<i>Illustration Karl HIlzinger</i>

Illustration Karl HIlzinger

Every so often, an interview sticks with you for weeks or months. I have thought about a refreshingly honest comment from Billie Goat Soap founder Leanne Faulkner, about the downside of media stories on successful entrepreneurs. I profiled Faulkner for BusinessDay in March.

To recap, Faulkner suffered depression when her venture struggled with the weak retail climate. She said: “I used to read all these stories about successful entrepreneurs and wondered why I was such a failure. I thought I was the problem, not the business.

All too often, entrepreneurs are judged by how quickly they build revenue. 

“I found these superficial success stories were very damaging. In some ways it was like a schoolgirl getting anorexia because she thinks super models are the norm. It took me a long time to realise that very successful entrepreneurs are the exception.”

What’s your view?

  • Do you gain valuable insights from reading about successful entrepreneurs?
  • Do you get sick of reading about the same entrepreneurs?
  • Do you ever question your own ability, based on comparison with successful entrepreneurs?
  • Why don’t we read more about ethical, failed entrepreneurs who start again?

Regular readers know I have written on the incidence of depression in entrepreneurs and failure for The Venture over the past four years. Like Faulkner, I tired of reading stories about the same supposed “super hero” entrepreneurs for the thousandth time, and felt they often did little more than spruik the business owner, and present a clichéd, superficial view of entrepreneurial strategy.

There was as much, or more, to learn from ethical entrepreneurs who struggled, failed, and had the guts to start again, or know when to give up and deal with petty community attitudes. Real people who had real problems, real insecurities and real challenges, such as putting food on the table each night for a young family and motivating staff when they were wracked with self-doubt.

But few people write about entrepreneur failure in a positive light. We still have this mindset that all entrepreneurs who fail are crooks or complete dopes. Some are. Yet many more have a go, try their best, and struggle with an underperforming venture for years. They are admirable in their own way. To top it off, there is little support to help them when their venture fails, or if they suffer health problems, such as depression, because of financial or personal stress.

Entrepreneurs are partly to blame: they are only too happy to talk when things go well, but rarely want to talk about failure or their insecurities for fear it will damage their brand. Consequently, we don’t gain genuinely valuable insights into how they deal with failure, and recover.

Faulkner’s comment stuck with me because I, too, wonder about the possible dangers of this torrent of entrepreneur hero stories. Don’t get me wrong: genuine business success stories are important. That is why I have written plenty over the years and edited magazines devoted to researching and writing about entrepreneurs. Case studies promote entrepreneurship to a wider audience, educate and motivate aspiring business owners, and help start-ups raise their profile.

It is no different to other fields, such as sport, music, the arts and big business: people want to read about the best and brightest. But unbalanced stories about successful entrepreneurs can create a false impression that sustained business success is easy, that it requires huge risk-taking, or a genetic predisposition for entrepreneurship. Or that unless you drip cheesy charisma and have a fabulous lifestyle, you cannot build a fast-growth venture.

I wonder how much these entrepreneur hero stories help the other 98 per cent of business owners who struggle to build a bigger venture, or earn a decent wage, and keep their marriage, family and friendships intact. Perhaps these stories just create more self-doubt in struggling entrepreneurs, as was the case with Faulkner.

Here is some advice to consider when reading stories about successful entrepreneurs:

1. Know they are the exception

Star entrepreneurs who build multi-million-dollar ventures in a matter of years are rare; probably 1 to 2 per cent of all business owners. Use their success as motivation, if it works, but don’t question your own ability based on comparisons between your success and theirs. Set realistic goals based on your expectations; not those manufactured in publicity driven entrepreneur stories.

2. Understand that success is often short-lived

All too often, entrepreneurs are judged by how quickly they build revenue. Those who build a venture with a few million dollars of revenue in a matter of years must be a huge success, right? Sometimes they are. But often they cannot maintain fast growth, or they grow for growth’s sake and become unprofitable. Or the business eventually crashes because it had poor structures and systems, and they could not lead.

3. Understand the game

Some entrepreneurs are relentless media spruikers. They have the same dull, repetitive story written about how great they are; how they sold lemonade at the age of five; and how they overcame the odds in their own rags-to-riches tale. It is shameless theatre designed to get free publicity, promote their brand and provide media content. Seldom do we read about the real ups and down and insecurities that all entrepreneurs face at times.

4. Consider the advice

It always bugs me when people criticise academics who teach entrepreneurship. Apparently students would rather learn from real business owners than someone who studies entrepreneurship. Some successful entrepreneurs have much to teach others, and they provide a perspective rarely found in textbooks. But they usually have only one perspective – theirs – and it is always biased. Management insights based on a large sample of entrepreneurs are more instructive and reliable, yet too many aspiring business owners automatically think a tip for an entrepreneurial hero is gold.

5. Learn from like-minded entrepreneurs

I always find the best advice comes for those with similar ventures. Sometimes you can learn practical tips from entrepreneurs battling the same business conditions, and meet people who can empathise with your situation and provide emotional support when needed. Yet we gravitate to tips from entrepreneurial heroes who outsource stories to their publicity agents, who in turn ghost-write glossy rubbish for them, all in the name of more self-promotion, rather than genuinely helping others.

9 comments so far

  • On TOP one day and down the Scrapheap the next.
    The fixation on the successful is understandable but to expect them to be invincible and flawless is stupid.
    Here are a few High Flyers to remember

    Bob Ansett
    Robert Maxwell
    Conrad Black
    Alan Bond
    Christopher Skase
    Kenneth Lay
    Bernir Madoff
    Emmanual Cassimatis
    and so on & so on.

    The current breed of Financial High-Flyers that are grabbing the wrong headline need to understand that success without social conscience is like empty tin cans that might eventually rust away and discarded.

    Date and time
    May 07, 2012, 1:37PM
    • Well then! Let's have no more stories about Big Commerce then, starting today. Please go away, Mitchell Harper and Eddie Machaalani. No more please. Stick this on your Vision Board.

      Mass Produced
      Date and time
      May 07, 2012, 2:15PM
      • The stories of "failures" are better education than the success stories. You don't learn things when they are going well, you need failure to learn and realise what you did wrong, if you can use others misfortune for this than all the better.

        Tell me where it is that i will die. So, i will then not go there.

        Date and time
        May 07, 2012, 2:55PM
        • I do get sick of hearing Mark Zuckerberg. Don't mind hearing what Larry Page and Sergei Brin are doing.

          Some so call entrepreneurs just aren't so entrepreneurial i.e. the Entrepreneurial (or rather controversial) Clive Palmer.

          But surely there must be failures before success, so hearing failures is good education to avoid repeats. If i want to learn from a true businessman certainly Sir Richard Branson ahead of Donald Trump in any moment of the day!

          Date and time
          May 07, 2012, 4:09PM
          • G'reat article. There aren't many "star" entrepreneurs worth listening too - as a general rule of thumb if they are making their living being a "star" rather than continuing to successfully run an SME then save your time and money. We all need quality advice & motivation but its hard too find.

            We should encourage more people, like Leanne, to be honest about the struggle and where / who to turn to for valuable help. Good mentors / advisors exist but they may not be the best at marketing themselves

            Date and time
            May 07, 2012, 5:45PM
            • The blogosphere can be your friend. There are many entrepreneurs who have personal blogs where they talk about their ups and downs and daily happenings. It can be very educational and far more real than the stories of star entrepreneurs or academics.

              Maybe Tony could profile some of the blogs.

              The problem with the academic approach is that the kind of study it uses usually loses so much information. The analysis results in reduction to 'rules'. This looks good in a journal but then how to apply the 'rules' gets put down to 'more art than science' which means it is quite useless to those wanting to learn from this knowledge. This doesn't apply to all academic writing, just the vast majority. It is fair to ask: If the academics know so much how many successful ventures have they started?

              Steve Blank has a good blog about the initial stages of being a startup.

              Ignore the heroes - their stories are usually just as cleaned, with just as much detail removed, as the academic studies. Get to know people who have done what you want to do. This is where useful knowledge is usually found.

              Evan Hadkins
              Date and time
              May 07, 2012, 5:50PM
              • Yes, seen both sides myself. 58 years and still learning, will be til the day I die. I think I would die without the learning. The challenge one gives ones-self without a great deal of support is paramount to any hope of success, as after failure, large or small, it's very easy for people to say, give it up. But I would say I learnt so much, to give up (providing the risk analysis/reward is OK) the lesson was a complete waste of time. I would always be asking myself I wonder what would have happened if I had done that.Times change, opportunities change so you would really never know. Failure is the best teacher you can have. Fear of it is your real risk assesor.If one hasn't failed yet then talk to as many people who have, be a sponge for all the knowledge you can get. Their experience could save you from that dirty word you might not wish to be labelled. I will always hold ones who pick up the pieces and trek forward in higher esteem than those who have had shear luck on their side. Those who have their own skin in the game, and not abusing shareholders money without concience for their own end. I would have no fear in publicly admitting my failures if others could learn from it. Then too I could also mention the feelings that go with the success of that learning. Lose the house, a little bit of dignity and then come back, it's a special feeling. I won't die wondering?

                Been there
                Date and time
                May 08, 2012, 1:21AM
                • So true. I get tired of picking up a certain US magazine and reading ridiculous headlines like "The road to $1 billion". I guess this is sexy and appealing to people under 30 who have a tech startup. Or an ego problem.

                  It took me a few years to get comfortable with where I'm at and where I want to be, because by certain standards my goals are modest. But I am on track and still in business after 5 years, which is more than I can say for some of those high flying startups.

                  Date and time
                  May 08, 2012, 1:44AM
                  • Couldn't agree more with the story. I had a torid small business experience during my twenties that gave me depression. Total roller coaster ride - spot on with the comment about having to go in and motivate staff when all you want to do is stay in bed. You just had to do it - and smile as these people's livelihoods depended on it. None of my friends understood it as they all worked for corporations. Great learning experience.

                    Date and time
                    May 08, 2012, 9:07AM

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