Fail­ure for an entre­pre­neur is heart­break­ing. So is the threat of it. But if Elon Musk sur­vived that threat, you can, too.


5 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.


“Suc­cess is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart peo­ple into think­ing they can’t lose.” — Bill Gates

Research by Kathryn Shaw of Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty and Francine Lafontaine of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan shows that failed entre­pre­neurs are more like­ly to find suc­cess the sec­ond time around — and that the longer they remained at their first busi­ness, the high­er their chance of suc­cess at the sec­ond. So, there is a sil­ver lin­ing behind every failed ven­ture.

Relat­ed: How to Muster Your Come­back After Let­ting Peo­ple Down

Still, fail­ure is heart­break­ing. After all, entre­pre­neurs desire to build star­tups that won’t fail. And fail­ure is par­tic­u­lar­ly painful when they’ve invest­ed a lot of their time and mon­ey. But in every fail­ure, there is a valu­able les­son to be learned and expe­ri­ence to gain. 

The take­away: If you don’t give up, you’ll bounce back big­ger and bet­ter than you’d imag­ined. So, if your start­up is going through a rough patch right now, check out these heart­en­ing come­backs:

1. Build something you love and investors will become fans.

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” — Steve Jobs

The biggest mis­take entre­pre­neurs can make is to go “all-in” to cre­ate a prod­uct they nei­ther love nor believe in. Just for the sake of hit­ting it big in the mar­ket, some entre­pre­neurs build busi­ness­es around some­thing that is trend­ing — not because they have the pas­sion to pur­sue it.

In short, it’s the love, belief and pas­sion for the ser­vices you offer and the prod­ucts you cre­ate that will sus­tain you even when the chips are down.

Take Phil Lib­in’s sto­ry: After sell­ing two busi­ness­es, he wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly pas­sion­ate about, Lib­in want­ed to make sure that his third com­pa­ny would be dif­fer­ent. He and his team made them­selves the tar­get audi­ence and cre­at­ed a prod­uct that they loved and a busi­ness they want­ed to keep. This prod­uct was Ever­note.

How­ev­er, due to finan­cial con­straints, Lib­in got to the point where he was just about to pull the plug. Then, at the eleventh hour, he received an email from a Swedish investor who was a fan of Ever­note and offered to put $500,000 on the table, allow­ing the com­pa­ny to keep run­ning. Today, Ever­note is val­ued at more than $1 bil­lion.

Relat­ed: Don’t Call Her Old-Fash­ioned: Paula Deen’s Come­back Is for the Dig­i­tal Era

2. Address what’s not working.

“Lead­ers get out in front and stay there by rais­ing the stan­dards by which they judge them­selves and by which they are will­ing to be judged.” — Fred­er­ick W. Smith

Don’t shrink from feed­back, no mat­ter how bad people’s reac­tion to your ser­vice may seem. Instead, be open-mind­ed and cre­ative to find solu­tions to the prob­lem you face, to get out of the rut.

The sports giant Adi­das made a big mis­take in its email mar­ket­ing cam­paign when it fea­tured the sub­ject line, “Con­grats, you sur­vived the Boston Marathon!” Of course, it was impos­si­ble for view­ers not to asso­ciate the line with that ear­li­er, 2013 Boston Marathon and ter­ror­ist bomb­ing that killed three and injured 260.

But Adi­das quick­ly backed off and faced its rep­u­ta­tion issue head-on by issu­ing a heart­felt pub­lic apol­o­gy. This was the right move because it head­ed off a lot of bad press.

As Cameron Poet­zsch­er, VP of cor­po­rate devel­op­ment at anoth­er com­pa­ny — Uber — that’s faced rep­u­ta­tion issues, said: “It is impor­tant for com­pa­nies to be trans­par­ent about their mis­takes. Every mis­take is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to improve.”

3. Create opportunities for your business to survive.

“If oppor­tu­ni­ty doesn’t knock, build a door.” — Mil­ton Berle

There are times when your start­up gets to the brink of clo­sure and you’ll need to be cre­ative in sourc­ing solu­tions to your prob­lem. Here, no mat­ter how crazy a pos­si­ble solu­tion may seem, you’ll nev­er know what might work until you give it a try.

Elon Musk was stuck at a cross­roads of how to save his ail­ing busi­ness­es SpaceX and Tes­la. Musk him­self described his dilem­ma say­ing, “I couldn’t pick SpaceX or Tes­la or split the mon­ey I had left between them.”

Still, Musk’s tricky sit­u­a­tion inspired a proac­tive solu­tion. To save SpaceX, he applied for a con­tract with NASA. That $1.6 bil­lion con­tract with NASA suc­ceed­ed and saved SpaceX. Then, to save Tes­la, Musk took out a loan from SpaceX and sourced $50 mil­lion from his investors, sav­ing Tes­la hours before the com­pa­ny was to go bank­rupt, on Christ­mas Eve 2008.

4. Stay tenacious until things work out

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” — Hen­ry Ford

Some entre­pre­neurs see fail­ure as a sign that the busi­ness will nev­er work, but that is far from the truth. They may have tried every­thing to boost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and effi­cien­cy in their busi­ness just to make sure that their start­up works. But in such sit­u­a­tions, it’s impor­tant to be tena­cious and refuse to believe that fail­ure is inevitable.

Ari­an­na Huff­in­g­ton is known to be suc­cess­ful in the online pub­lish­ing space but ear­ly on encoun­tered chal­lenges get­ting to that suc­cess. When she want­ed to pub­lish her sec­ond book, for instance, she had to go to 36 pub­lish­ers to get a “yes.” 

Relat­ed: Sales Teams Are Mak­ing a Big Come­back at Tech Firms

Then, when she estab­lished Huff­in­g­ton Post in 2005, the crit­i­cal reac­tion was luke­warm, but still Huff­in­g­ton didn’t give up. She worked hard, and in 2011 Huff­Po hit over a bil­lion page views and was lat­er bought by AOL for a whop­ping $315 mil­lion.

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