Learning to fail but not failing to learn

Fear of failure used to be my main motivator at school.

More specifically, failure to achieve. My teachers expected me to get high grades and I came to expect and demand it of myself. I’d be upset at getting any mark that didn’t put me at or near the top of the class.

Whether or not failure to achieve was a helpful motivator, I’ve now learned to embrace failure as a necessary way to learn. The word itself has lost the ‘doom and gloom’ stigma it had for me growing up.

Before this realisation, I came out of university having never really failed at anything. The closest I had come to failure was rejection – rejection from the technology arm of one of the ‘big four’ firms. It was a humbling experience, I had sailed through the first competency interview and came back, cocksure, to chat with one of the partners. I was a little taken aback a week later when I got an email saying my application had been unsuccessful.

This rejection made me re-evaluate why I was actually applying to these grad schemes in the first place. I decided to put the whole ‘getting a job thing’ on hold until I’d finished university, confident that something would come up – an unusually self-assured and relaxed attitude (for me) that shocked my friends.

It turned out that something did come up. My first job out of university was working for a technology startup company where a friend on my university course had recently started.

We had a small team, a great (disruptive) product that people took notice of and the general feeling that we were going to make it big – it was just a matter of when.

That faith was not blind. We had early (paying) customers who were enjoying using the product and providing us with good feedback.

A year of so after I joined, an American company expressed an interest in acquiring us.  After a lengthy due diligence period, they gave us a term sheet. (I didn’t really know what a term sheet was back then but, it was all very exciting and provided validation that we were on to something).

For one reason or another, the board couldn’t agree on the terms and the deal broke down. We would carry on ourselves.

Over the course of the next 18 months, we carried on developing the product, won a couple more customers and even launched a new product off the back of one of our customers saying they would pay for it.

However, the company had started to disperse. The team I had joined to work with gradually moved on to other things as we had to become leaner and lower our operating costs.

During my final few months at the company, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the writing was on the wall. People were still telling me the products were innovative and great but no-one was buying them and with little support around me, I started to lose the conviction in trying to sell them.

We had started with such a novel concept and talented team – I couldn’t accept we hadn’t become a sustainable business.

So, I left. The last employee out the door. I’d failed and I’d accepted it.

After the dust had settled, I came to realise that what I had learnt through ‘failing’ with a small company was a lot more than I’d likely have learnt joining a professional services firm.

Given the chance to do it all again, I’d pick the humbling experience of failing in a startup in a heartbeat.