More Lessons From The School Of Failure

Just as my "Failure is the New Success" column was coming out last week, I had a conversation with my friend Richard. "Your name came up recently," he told me. "We were talking about failure so of course it reminded me of you."

Yes, he is a friend. And, no, this would not ordinarily seem a kind thing to say. But Richard was referring to a little story I had told him about how I first met my business partner, Melissa.

See, back in the day, I had a company that distributed large format digital printing supplies: all the raw materials that go into making billboards and bus graphics and the like. I was 23 years old; 95% of my business was to a single customer -- who, by the way, also owned 80% of my company. When his company went bust, so did mine.

I immediately jumped back in the fire, this time with an Internet education company. We wrote books, produced a series of videos, and traveled around the country on a bus tour to teach kids and parents how to use the Internet in a fun, safe and educational way. Our content was great. Our show was a hit. We got on CNN and in Entrepreneur magazine. But we had no business model at all, and shut the doors in late 2001.

For the next five or six years, I licked my wounds and collected a paycheck. I didn't want to be in charge. I didn't want to be responsible for whether or not someone else's family got to eat dinner that night. I just wanted to go to work, do my job, make a little money, and sleep at night.

Then one day I happened to attend a talk by the new CEO of a local company. Melissa was addressing the Women in Technology group at a luncheon. There were around 20 of us, seated in a big square, and she started by going around the room and asking for everyone's 10-second bio.

"I'm Kaila," I said. "I've started two companies and they both went under."

Melissa's reaction was immediate and uncompromising: "You need to start another company immediately, before you're too scared to go back and before you forget everything you learned. You'll make mistakes, but at least you won't make those mistakes. And call me for a cup of coffee."

I will forever be grateful to her for that flash-of-light, catalyst moment. We are now business partners in one company. She is on the advisory board of another company of mine. She'll be a bridesmaid at my New Zealand (as opposed to the one I just held in the States) wedding. And this profound and rich relationship came from her ability to see my failure as something to be cherished.

As MySpace struggles under Facebook's relentless onslaught, as Twitter finally prepares to monetize through deals with the godfathers of search, as our online landscape shifts and morphs and transforms, as you make the everyday decisions that affect your business and your customers and your livelihood, I hope you can have the perspective to know that you might not get it right. I hope you then have the perspective to immediately regroup, reassess, and recommit. These three actions turn failure into a launchpad instead of a resting place.

Regroup, reassess, and recommit. Then call me for a cup of coffee. I look forward to hearing about your mistakes.

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8 comments about "More Lessons From The School Of Failure".
  1. David Rankin from Photogold , October 13, 2009 at 10:31 a.m.

    that's an excellent insight . Everybody struggles sometime , but it's how you bounce back and make your own breakthrough that counts

  2. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc. , October 13, 2009 at 2:51 p.m.

    I have a similar story and it took some time before I took the leap again. That was 7 years ago and I have never looked back. It is risky to start a business but the rewards - from success and failure - are of great professional, personal and business value. Thanks for sharing your story here.

  3. Karen Waller from Spot Media Group Advertising Inc. , October 13, 2009 at 4:18 p.m.

    Ok, I'm stunned that this email just came thru as I was thinking is this because I'm a member or what? We are at a crossroad situation in our company and relatively to all points that were in your article hit my exact fears. I'd definitely like to talk to the person who wrote this article as I'm so ready to not have that stress and go back to the corporate world, this article causes me pause.

  4. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions , October 13, 2009 at 4:23 p.m.

    Thanks for a great article. This is soooo true. My first business enterprise more than 25 years ago resulted in a personal bankruptcy. Now I look at it as expensive tuition. Those crucial mistakes never did happen again. And for 2009, I am on pace to personally sell more than $1,000,000 worth of advertising and marketing services - again.

  5. Jo Guerra from Your Marketing Gal , October 13, 2009 at 4:38 p.m.

    Hey Kaila, Have to put this on my blog. And yes, I've experienced failure - haven't we all? And yes, I've reinvented myself. Some times not as quickly as I would have liked. However, it's all about being gentle with yourself, finding the lesson in your failures and regrouping.

  6. Frank Watson from Kangamurra Media , October 13, 2009 at 10:35 p.m.

    Reminds me of Mike Moran's book Get It Wrong Quickly

  7. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing , October 14, 2009 at 4:25 p.m.

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing. I am on my second start up and can relate!

  8. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link , October 14, 2009 at 9:28 p.m.

    Wow, thanks for the positive responses!

    I talk with a lot of entrepreneurs, and there are definitely two elephants in the room when it comes to startups: fear and failure. Almost invariably, there will be a moment when I say something like, "It's so scary being in charge, isn't it?" and the business owner I'm talking to will just melt. "How did you know I felt that way? I'm terrified all the time!"

    The emperor doesn't have any clothes on, and there's a huge relief in knowing that all of us who are in business for ourselves have failed or feared failing -- because there's a part of us that also feels ashamed of failure. At least if we know we're all in the same boat, we can take the shame out of the equation.

    Congratulations to you who are out there making things happen!