By Suraya Pandor, Digital Account Manager, Irvine Partners
In her book ‘Moment of Lift’, Melinda Gates shares that her spectacular failure at Microsoft in the mid-nineties proved pivotal for her future success as an entrepreneur. At a time when only a third of consumers owned personal computers, she headed a team which designed ‘Microsoft Bob’, a software tool for teaching consumers how to use Microsoft’s desktop functions. The result was Time Magazine labelling the tool as one of their ‘worst inventions of the year’ but for Gates, failing so hard provided her a lifelong lesson in pausing and reflecting. It was this lesson that taught her the permanent nature of failure in risk taking, and that in order to dream big, ‘spectacular failures’ will be required.
In 2021, almost a year into the pandemic, global company sales dropped 27 percent in October 2020 – January 2021 from pre-pandemic levels, after plunging 45 percent in April to September. This according to the ongoing World Bank Business Pulse study of over 120 000 firms from 79 countries. The study reveals that in almost every country, agile businesses have been able to pivot in the face of challenges to stay afloat. For example, the majority of firms in the study reportedly started or increased their use of digital platforms to counteract drops in sales.
In the USA, a federal study looking at businesses performance in the first two years of the pandemic saw that far fewer businesses failed than predicted. In the UK, 2020 was dubbed ‘The Year of the Start Up’ owing to the number of new businesses started – a 14% increase countrywide and 6% above the global average, despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no doubt that many of these businesses were off to a rocky start owing to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, their most useful tool being resilience in the face of it.
Four business leaders who’ve experienced setbacks and learned resilience, share their tools for failing forward into business success.
Become comfortable with discomfort
According to Aisha Pandor, CEO of home services company, SweepSouth, the practical details of whatever you set out to achieve could mean you have to redefine what success looks like at every stage.
“Running your own business takes a lot of grit, and you can expect to fail again and again at every stage of the process. SweepSouth’s Co-Founder, my husband Alen, and I went through a lot of unnecessary personal discomfort when we started out because we thought that, as entrepreneurs, we had to show our investors that we were so invested that we were willing to live on next to nothing and be very, very uncomfortable for a long time,” says Pandor.
“Entrepreneurship is challenging and there should be no shame in failing as long as you’ve tried your best. If I think back on all the learning, especially in the last few years of running SweepSouth and trying to be a good woman, friend and daughter, there has definitely been a lot of having to come to terms with being comfortable, with discomfort involved. I’ve learned to see this discomfort as a channel through which to learn from my mistakes before evolving and sharing this evolution with my teams. In the face of this discomfort we’ve evolved into a business operating out of four countries across the African continent.”
The UK’s 2021 entrepreneurship boom was founded off of this discomfort. London’s high street saw mass closures, forcing business owners to pivot into new streams. Out of the over 770 000 new businesses started in 2021, the majority were started by entrepreneurs turning to the online and mail to order market. This pivot satisfied consumers facing movement restrictions, while lowering operating costs related to building rental and daily travel. Many businesses that kept their doors open jumped onto the market trend of a global increase in social media use by consumers, using platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to promote their services and communicate with stakeholders.
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Being flexible enables you to pivot at the right time
“It’s well known – especially after the events of the past two years – that uncertainty is the only certainty in business,” says Jonathan Hurvitz, CEO of Teljoy. “However, possessing this knowledge isn’t the same as embracing the uncertainty, which is far harder and requires an agile mindset as much as it does an agile operating model.
“A recent lesson for Teljoy has been the importance of regularly re-evaluating and interrogating our value proposition to ensure that it aligns to evolving customer needs and preferences, as well as market trends, so that we are able to respond timeously and in a way that adds relevant value to the customer and measurable value to the bottom line.
“Another lesson is the importance of flexible plans and dynamic strategies and that customer value needs to be the driving force behind all those plans and strategies.”
Changing course and adjusting value propositions in light of set-backs should be looked at as a leadership skill, rather than indecisiveness and a lack of clear vision. The willingness to try a second time or change one’s mind helped many business owners to stay afloat during the pandemic’s most challenging periods.
Bring multiple voices together for decision making
To anyone starting out on an entrepreneurial journey, Rachel Irvine, CEO of Irvine Partners, advises being prepared to both win and fail, but ensuring that each set back is money in the bank in terms of what you learn from it.
“And always celebrate the wins,” she says. “It’s a tough journey and one that requires stamina so don’t berate yourself for the bad days more than you celebrate yourself for the good days.
“Serving a client base of regional and international clients from Cape Town to London means that the quality and diversity of people we bring into the business is critical. Over the years we’ve had bad fits, right rotters, and absolute unicorns – as is the case with most businesses. We’ve learned how toxic bad fits can be to company culture. We have evolved our recruitment process substantially to ensure that only the right culture and value fits are let in through the front door.
“This has meant senior management relinquishing the right to veto a candidate. The final step in our recruitment process is a panel interview with team members based in multiple offices, and if it’s a no from the team, then management accepts the decision. As a result, our attrition rate has dropped substantially.”
The World Bank’s survey found that 85% of firms held on to their employees at the beginning of the pandemic, with this number increasing to 89% in October 2020 – January 2021. The Stockholm School of Economics found that companies that encouraged organisation-wide failure sharing during the pandemic were far more likely to build resilient teams and retain employees than those that didn’t. The goal would be to emphasise the importance of learning touted by Melinda Gates, over performance, at the right times.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again
Finally, while failure is uncomfortable, we need failure and setbacks to grow, says Didi Onwu, Communications and Stakeholder Relations Associate of the Anzisha Prize.
“I think of former entrants in the Anzisha Prize, such as Cameroon’s Melissa Bime, the founder of Inifuss – an online blood bank and digital supply chain platform. After being rejected for the Anzisha Prize, she applied again, and in 2018 was crowned as the grand prize winner, walking away with USD 25 000 to grow her business.
“There is also Daniel Mukisa from Uganda who had to leave his first business only to later build Ridelink – an on-demand e-transport and e-logistics company that employs 25 people. Their tenacity is proof of the power of living boldly, and taking a bet on yourself, even if at first, you are the only one doing so,” says Onwu.
Sharing failures and learning from them is an important tool for every organisation. In fact, many entrepreneurs consider it to be a natural stepping stone to growth. Like Melinda Gates, many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs have failed at least once along their paths to success. In light of that, what matters most, they say, is not the setback, but what you learn and how you move forward from them.