Businesses are keenly aware that innovation is increasingly necessary for survival, let alone success, but many still struggle with the notion that innovation is not without risk of failure.
There is a prevailing belief that failure is a weakness, and this works through all layers of the business: from the board through to management, to business departments and to individual employees.
According to Peter Bradd, the co-founder and CEO of The Beanstalk Factory – a company working with corporates to inspire innovative thinking – failure isn’t the end of the line. Also the founding director of StartupAUS, Fishburners and ScribblePics, Bradd has been around the traps in both the corporate and start-up worlds. Here, he discusses what he has learnt over the years about success, failure and how the two are entwined.
What does the term ‘failure’ mean to you?
Simply put, failure means not getting it right – it’s the opposite of success. Although it has a negative connotation in Australia, I believe failure is a necessary pit stop on the journey to success.
Failure is not fatal, nor is it defining. What is important is how you overcome failure and turn it into a lesson. Failure can arm you with valuable insights and lead to better judgment both in business and on a personal level.
As they are doing things that haven’t been done before entrepreneurs must be comfortable with the typically uncomfortable notion of failure.
When were you first stung by failure?
I’ve failed a thousand times over but my first big failure was managing a business relationship with Qantas. At the time, I was 22 years of age and had recently launched my first start-up, the personalised postcard app ScribblePics.
I simply didn’t understand the nature of big business and didn’t have any experience to draw upon. I expected big business to work seamlessly; however, I very quickly got a lesson about silos inside large organisations. More often than not the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing and they don’t always agree and sometimes they ferociously disagree. Frequently, things wouldn’t go to plan – when you fall short of fulfilling a promise or a decision simply doesn’t work out, it’s a terrible feeling. I hate letting others down. I felt I had let down my business partners, both of whom had put a lot of faith, time, money and trust into me and the relationship with Qantas.
For me, it wasn’t a matter of overpromising, it simply didn’t work out as one would reasonably expect because of unknowns. The rapid evolution of technology between 2008 and 2012 meant I, like most entrepreneurs, was constantly forced to find new distribution partners and channels to market. Before we’d even finished the first version of Qantas Postcards, the world had moved on. In particular, two small things had launched and were getting massive traction: Facebook and Apple’s iPhone. Fortunately, we went on to do very innovative things with Expedia and Facebook and to create an API to allow others to incorporate our technology into their business. ScribblePics is now a service for other companies to create their own customer facing service and we recently closed Qantas Postcards and other customer facing services we operated down in June 2016.
What have your failures taught you?
I have learnt to make decisions based on logic rather than emotion, which has a tendency to cloud perception and judgment. This involves taking a step back and spending time thinking about the implications of each decision.
I’ve also embraced the Lean Start-up Approach and the principles of Agile Software development so that I can learn from failure with minimal impact. More widely known as failing fast, failing forward or FLEARN (fail learn).
Is it important to learn from others’ mistakes?
Writer, Alfred Sheinwold, said, “learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won’t have time to make them all yourself.” I feel this is very much the motto of the start-up community. The sector is unique in openness and understanding that through making mistakes, discussing the successes and failures as a community, and then learning from each other’s experiences is important in the business process.
Fishburners, the co-working space I am a founding director of, is a forum for entrepreneurs to share their experiences and learn from their peers. I firmly believe this sort of forum helps you more accurately guess what the future might hold. If you fail, it also provides a safe place to pick yourself back up again. I wanted this environment to exist for myself and others.
Does a fear of failure impede innovation?
Not necessarily. In some cases a fear of failure may be the reason businesses step into action if they are already facing, say, technological disruption. However, if the fear of failure is causing an organisation to dig its heels in and ignore the changing landscape then that becomes a major risk. This is why innovation must be proactively built into the operational framework – the goals and strategy – of the business from the top down and bottom-up.