Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
Fail fast. Fail forward. Startup failure may be educational, but it’s a lesson delivered by a very expensive teacher who exacts a steep emotional and economic price.
The space between the Big Success and the Big Failure is where entrepreneurs live and breathe. It’s also home to disappointment, a much-overlooked and less costly teacher than failure. If the Big Failure is a lesson learned, disappointments are just-in-time teaching moments. I asked two startup founders with very different companies and backgrounds how they manage disappointments for themselves and their teams.
Look for the silver lining.
Lacey Ellis is founder and CEO of Little Hoots, which closed a seed round of funding last November. The Little Hoots app allows parents to capture and archive the things their children say and do as digital keepsakes. Ellis’s startup got a visibility boost in 2015, when the quotes of a little girl named Greta were posted on the company’s social media platforms and went viral. The visibility led to the company’s application to appear on a reality television series to pitch her business.
“It seemed like an amazing opportunity,” says Ellis. “Millions of people would see our product, so we decided to go for it.”
Little Hoots progressed through several rounds, and was working with producers to refine their script when Ellis learned that her company had been cut.
“I got the call on a Friday afternoon,” Ellis remembers. “I was very disappointed. I didn’t tell my team until the following Monday.”
Ellis took the weekend to talk to advisors and assess the upside. “The timing wasn’t right for us, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be right for us in the future. The process forced us to really hone our financial plan.”
Repeat to yourself: you are not your business.
Toby Rush is founder and CEO of EyeVerify, whose secure Eyeprint biometric authentication replaces passwords on mobile devices. Rush is a serial entrepreneur who previously founded RFID systems integrator Rush Tracking Systems, which he sold to a private equity firm in 2009.
He emphasizes the importance of separating self from startup. “When we reflect what happens in our companies as ourselves…that can cause a lot of erratic behavior. I’ve had to learn to separate the disappointments of the company from who I am as a person.”
Rush gives the example of determining the right entry market. “Early on at EyeVerify, we put our energy into developing the enterprise market, and spent 18 months figuring out that the right entry market for us was banking and financial services. It’s disappointing to get a lot of no’s to figure that out, but you have to be resilient and know when to change paths.”
Deal with disappointment with an all-in attitude.
Ellis and Rush each describe their commitment to their companies in terms of a calling, which helps them to recover from disappointments.
“If your vision is monetary success, those disappointments are going to be very hard,” Rush observes. “Monetary success ebbs and flows in every business, and your emotions can’t handle that roller coaster. You and your team have to get your identity and your significance from a higher purpose and broader vision.”
Managing disappointments won’t rule out failure, but Ellis and Rush agree: they keep you focused on what leads to success.
Elizabeth Usovicz is topline revenue strategist and principal of WhiteSpace Consulting, which provides business development strategy, sales coaching, market development and strategic planning. Connect with Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org or @eusovicz on Twitter.
In July of 2015, Startland News collaborated with WhiteSpace Consulting to conduct a whiteboard conversation with women entrepreneurs in the Kansas City region. Women entrepreneurs shared their perceptions about launching and leading companies, and identified topics for ongoing discussion. As a result of this conversation, Startland News and WhiteSpace Consulting have developed (S)heStarts, a blog series that explores the entrepreneurial experience that women and men share, as well as perspectives on how their experiences are unique.