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Innovators have the right to fail

Cassandra Wilkinson | The Australian | 12 July 2014

I was chatting to an 11-year-old acquaintance last week who told me his inner-Sydney school now had four school captains. They had an election; the children chose a captain; then the teachers decided it would be fairer if the position were shared equally among the contenders.

It was a gesture in stark contrast to an article I read the same week by tech entrepreneur Nikki Durkin, who has written a beautiful and personal plea for us to take a much more honest approach to failure.

A few years ago Durkin was on her way to the US. Her company, 99 Dresses, was stimulating discussions at her alma mater, the University of Technology, Sydney, about how to use business education to support gen Y entrepreneurs. Her investors, the tech press, everyone knew she was destined for success.

After many years, a lot of hard work, high hopes and broken dreams, Durkin has closed the company. Her story has spread like wildfire across the start-up community and social media. Her honest appraisal of what she calls her failure resonates with thousands of people who are ready for a more honest conversation about what it takes to start and sustain a venture.

“The start-up press glorifies hardship,” she writes, but acknowledges failure only in cases that ultimately succeed. “They glorify the Airbnbs who sold breakfast cereal to survive, and then turned their idea into a multi-billion-dollar business. You rarely hear the raw stories of start-ups that persevered but ultimately failed — the emotional roller-coaster of the founders, and why their start-ups didn’t work out.”

In Finland, the start-up community found the lack of honest discussion about failure such a problem the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society now organises a yearly “National Day of Failure” where entrepreneurs share stories and lessons from their mistakes, missteps and mess-ups. It writes in its manifesto: “Our mission is to help people overcome fear of failure and learn to get the most out of it. Odd as it may sound, we believe this can be achieved through celebration of failure.” Finland now has the world’s highest rates of public approval for entrepreneurs.

In Australia we need to teach kids that failure may well be part of a great life — or indeed an average one. That failure is part of trying and success is rare without it.

The 2013 Amway Global Entrepreneurship Report shows Australia has a high level of interest in entrepreneurial careers. Eighty-three per cent of gen Ys like Durkin say they are keen to become their own bosses.

Deloitte’s Josh Tanchel identified in an interactive report, Startups: Playing It Safe, is the Biggest Risk that “the attitude in the US is that failure is part of the entrepreneurial journey”, while in Australia, “when you have failed you are perceived to have a black mark against your name. It tends to hold Australian entrepreneurs back because they are less likely to go for global ideas and settle on targeting a smaller niche. This is holding business innovation in Australia back.”

“’Tis a lesson you should heed … if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again,” said William Edward Hickson. But that’s hard to do if the prevailing attitudes insist that failure destroys your reputation.

“My first instinct was to apologise,” writes Durkin. “I felt shame, guilt, embarrassment — like a shepherd who’d led her sheep off a cliff when it was my responsibility to keep them safe.”

With so much discussion about where to next after the mining boom, how to diversify the economy and the need for innovative approaches to our growing health and ageing challenges, it makes sense to encourage the entrepreneurial spirits of our business community.

For young people trying to get into the job market, a business of their own is a great solution. The young business people I know have a great track record of giving other young people their first jobs.

While the attention Durkin has garnered is mostly in the technology press, her comments are just as relevant to start-up businesses outside the technology sector.

A first restaurant may or may not work. Anyone starting a childcare centre, microbrewery or local laundry service has as much to gain from a frank discussion about the likelihood of failure, second-chancing and bouncing back.

Changing our attitude to failure is not about letting people off the hook for poor effort or malpractice. It’s simply an acknowledgment that sometimes best efforts and good ideas run up against changing circumstances, superior competitors or the unforeseen limits of the founders’ ingenuity.

As Durkin found, it’s not always somebody’s fault when things don’t work out.

Smart people who have the guts to build great things simply deserve a chance to try, try and try again.

It’s a lesson kids should be learning in the relative safety of their school years, lest they face it for the first time in the jungle of adult life.

Cassandra Wilkinson works for The Centre for Independent Studies.