Monday, January 26, 2015

How Failure Breeds Success

The UK and the US have historically viewed failure in very different ways. Here in the UK we see ‘failure’ as a dirty word.

But is that changing?

The unpalatable truth is it is rare that any business is an overnight success; much more likely it's going to be an incredibly long, hard slog with a fair number of false starts. In fact, for many, failure is just the beginning of the journey.

David Gann, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Imperial College, cites the example of the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, which had to be closed after two days because of its famous wobble. 'Everybody said it was a big failure, but it was turned into a success because the engineering company behind it, Arup, learnt about what had gone wrong with the bridge design, published its findings and then actually won new work off the back of it. So it turned it into a business success as well.'

British engineer and entrepreneur James Dyson famously described the inventor’s life as ‘one of failure’ after it took him 5,127 attempts to get the prototype of his vacuum cleaner right. And, of course, Thomas Edison said about the light bulb: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that wont work."

However, we are still not as generous as our American counterparts when it comes to the belief that failure is merely a pit stop on the road to success.

'One of the reasons Silicon Valley and the US system have been so successful,' says Oscar Jazdowski, head of origination at Silicon Valley Bank UK ‘is that entrepreneurs are allowed to fail quickly.' Indeed, failure is so central to the start-up model in Silicon Valley, there's now a sell-out annual conference dedicated to the topic.

'Keeping businesses going too long is the kiss of death. You look back and say: "You know what, we should have closed this company down a year and a half ago,"' says Jazdowski. Imperial's Gann agrees. His institution gives fledgling entrepreneurs the space (and crash mat) to try things and fail 'safely', he says.

And their success is our success. As we've heard from David Cameron time and time again, the UK's entrepreneurs could be the ones to pull us from the doldrums. And a true entrepreneurial economy can thrive only in a culture that allows people to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again.

As Henry Ford once said: 'Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.'

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