Erasing the Cultural Stigma of Shame in Startup Failures

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” — Thomas Edison

Startups are just like many businesses out there — they rise and fall. More often than not, they fold up even before they get the chance to grow and expand.

Unfortunately, many would-be founders and aspiring startup entrepreneurs are often led by media that glamorizes entrepreneurship as a “walk in the park” thing. Which is why some tend to underestimate what it actually takes to build something from the ground up.

The term “startup” is far removed from the realities of any emerging businesses and early-stage companies that are formed and shut down every day. At the end of the day, there are a lot of factors that can bring any startup to the next level or next to nothing.

In a world of high-growth industries and digital economy, failure is not an option as any negative news affecting any startup may become the cause of its own eventual demise. Sure we celebrate when a small startup gives massive funding from investors but we rarely remember the growing pains that led them to that. Furthermore, those who failed to launch from the get-go are often forgotten.

That’s the sad reality of failure, founders who led glamorous launches with complete social media coverage providing us a regular dose of updates of what they’re doing — something special to change the world and disrupt the fabric of the way we live. And then everything stopped and they stopped updating and eventually gone incognito.

As previously mentioned, news travels fast in the social media age. Any form of distress (cash flow and profitability issue, product development failure, employee turnover, corporate infighting, etc.) one way or another can have an adverse effect on any startup going forward. Culturally speaking, there is always a shame or stigma attached to such failure. A vicious cycle ensues when investors start dropping out like flies and then the cash flow starts drying up. Startups don’t initially start making a profit from the get-go so without such cash infusion, product development stops even if such an idea is a very promising one.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Report, “…a large proportion of new businesses do fail — often within a short period of launch. Such failures cause the founders' hardship, stress, and unhappiness. Would-be entrepreneurs who don’t at least consider these eventualities haven’t done their homework.”

A 2012 Harvard Business School study has attributed 65% of startup failures to personal stress. Such stress is often attributed to the culture of failure shaming is something that founders fail to address. When such issues associated with managing startups are still possible to fix, startups should seek assistance right away before it gets worse.

Perhaps, it all boils down to a deeply ingrained cultural belief system where people honor and support successful doctors, politicians and other professions but often sneer at startup founders due to its riskier path in a more uncertain business environment. With such overwhelming odds, there is immense pressure for the latter not to fail.

Apart from funding, a support system is something startups would have difficulty getting one. Going on your own is going against the safe path of working for someone for a stable job.

Just like successful startups disrupting the world of business and technology, its time for us to change our outlook on what it takes to be a successful startup founder. Perhaps, being more supportive of those who fail and help them pick up the pieces.

Most startup founders take educated risks and speculative choices moving forward but a risk is a risk no matter what. There is a need to have alternative plans and fall-back options whenever possible. In the modern-day “gold rush,” startups can be a boom or bust.

Don’t fall to the trap of media hype and false promises of ideal startup rag-to-riches stories.

Any startup idea is expected to disrupt the market. However, it is also one of the major reasons why it fails. When founders fail to understand the market, they end up having a product or service where there is no market for it. Oftentimes, the target market is not ready for it.

There is also what you call a “delusion of grandeur” when founders think of themselves as the “next big thing.” Oftentimes, there is a collective appeal where most people outside looking in would want them to fail. With that mindset, it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you fail miserably.

Just like gamblers, some founders don’t know when to cut their losses and end up putting all their eggs in the basket. Have a real business person on board that provides the voice of reason to complement that vision in mind.

It is important to believe in the vision from the get-go but don’t get blinded when things go wrong. When the first signs of failure occur, there is a tendency to cover up and ignore it completely. This is why some people think that visionary founders are like aimless dreamers

We often think about failure as something negative when it can be an integral part of the process of reaching success. When you know why you fail, you will know how to overcome and avoid it. Never settle for the outcome, look at the bright side of it.

Beeline Films founder Folake Bee

“The perceived ‘failure’ of each one of those ideas brought me to the brink of giving up. I kept going regardless. Now I realise that when you have been that low, it changes your perspective on risk-taking and how far you are able to ride these challenges (whilst motivating others) in your endeavours to bring your projects or business ideas to fruition.”

VITHIT founder Gary Lavin

“Failure shouldn’t be a bad word. In fact, in business, like in life, if you aren’t failing you aren’t trying hard enough. I lost everything while building my company; my car, my house, the lot but I never once labelled it ‘a failure’. To do so is to call time on your quest and I knew that I was creating a drink that someday when the time was right, would be in popular demand.”

Moneypenny co-founder Ed Reeves

“Failure in its own right is of no use but failure and taking away the learnings can be very valuable. Combining those learnings is what makes an adventurous business into a successful business.”

Mr. & Mrs. Smith founders James and Tamara Lohan

“You can tell whether you’re cut out for self-employment by what you do in the face of failure — if you give up, you’re probably not; if you get up and start again, you likely are. Many of the most successful business owners have a string of failures behind them — learning from those without being haunted by them is how they got to be successful.”

“Companies on the VC track are expected to buy into Silicon Valley’s fail fast philosophy, doing all they can to become the next Netflix, the next Google, or the next overnight ‘unicorn’. I think that’s certainly a recipe for a lot of companies failing unnecessarily.”

Failure is not the end of the world. It’s like an extra step to the process. The road to success is riddled with challenges that needed to be overcome. At the end of the day, it’s not a rat race to become the next unicorn.

This article was originally published on my website.

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J.P. Canonigo

J.P. Canonigo

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Historian, blogger, genealogist, copywriter & video game geek. Check out my bio at bio.link/jpcanonigo.