In the 1980s, my wife, two business partners and I grew a company to earn over $2 million in annual sales. Not Bill Gates money, but not bad for two kids in their early twenties (one of whom didn’t have a high school diploma — me). It was something to be proud of. Unfortunately, the four of us weren’t experienced enough to handle the internal conflict that came with rapid growth. Combined with the stress of having our first child, my wife and I decided it was a good time to make a necessary change.
1. The initial reset
Not only did we fail to work things out with our business partners, but we also failed to successfully negotiate for a settlement when we left. In the end, we walked away with little more than the shirts on our back and about $2000 in savings. We drove an old vehicle (that broke down about a dozen times) across the country and went to stay with my grandparents in Michigan until after our baby’s birth.
From there, we started all over again from scratch. With perseverance and a bit of luck, I stumbled into a position with a struggling consulting busines that desperately needed an enthusiastic young talented executive. After a year or so and several promotions, I was the Senior Vice President of what turned into an Inc. 500 company. Our earlier business failures seemed like a distant memory by then, and only in hindsight would I realize how they’d paved the way for those future opportunities. I wasn’t done failing yet, though.
2. A fresh start
With more experience under my belt, I started another business in 1995. After a few years, things were going well. Really well. By our sixth year, we were on target for $20 million in annual revenue and in negotiations with several Wall Street firms regarding an IPO. The company’s valuation was set potentially as high as $100 million. Then, everything changed on September 11, 2001.
This was a very hard fall from on high. Once again, we found ourselves packing up and starting over. Yes, it was my best success thus far — I’d built a massively successful business. In another sense, it was certainly my biggest failure yet. I didn’t know how to pivot or how to steer the company through the post-9/11 disruption. I dropped the ball as the CEO of the company and let down my employees, my family and my business associates.
This time we retreated to Florida with barely enough money to put a down payment on a house half the size as the one we had been living in. Back at square one, I decided to try something new: real estate. I networked, persevered and got lucky (2002-2006 was one of the best times ever in real estate). In three years, I owned $30 million worth of property in the area. My previous business’s utter and devastating failure had — yet again — turned out to be a stepping stone.
3. The final chapter
I have more stories about failing in business (everyone knows about the great real estate meltdown of 2008), but I think a more relatable tale might be the one of my failed first marriage. My wife and I had done a lot together: we’d run businesses and raised children. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t make it work. And as hard as marriage can be, divorce was harder. I hated it.
I told myself one thing: I won’t get stuck here, replaying all the fights and feeling sorry for myself. By this time, I’d learned that there was always something else up ahead, and I made up my mind to focus on my future as well as my children’s future and on finding it. I succeeded, eventually meeting and marrying someone with whom I found an even deeper level of fulfillment. Failing hurt. A lot. But what came next more than made up for it.
There are bumps and potholes on every road to success
The idea of failing your way to success isn’t a new one — plenty of better writers than me have tackled it. “Fail fast and fail often” is a defining trait of many companies’ culture and ethos. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not failure that does the trick. Failing alone cannot magically propel us to success. Instead, it’s our attitude toward the future as well as how many times you get back on the horse and try again that makes the difference.
When you fail (it’s inevitable to some degree), start by looking at exactly what you did wrong. And then, don’t do it again! It doesn’t have to be a dead-end. Better to be viewed as just another bump in the road. I have learned to look back at my failures with a sort of admiration; that is admiring the adventure and the hard-won lessons. Why would you quit? You would never get to see what happens at the end of the story.
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