Saturday, 4 June 2011

I'm good at failing

This week I have been doing presentations across the company telling my colleagues about the new venture that I am about to launch. Seven presentations to hundreds of people in three locations over three days. It was tiring but very useful, both to give me a chance to practice my "pitch" and also to work out answers to all the tricky questions.

One question that made me smile was along the lines of "Tom, this is all very exciting but what happens if it all falls flat on its face?"

The simple answer was, of course, that I will be polishing my CV (headhunters stand by...) but I think the real question was "how would you cope with catastrophic failure?"

The answer to that is simple too. I will cry with pain, agony and fury and then I will bounce back.

As a start-up guy you know that you will face failure. And I'm not talking about marginal under performance. I'm talking about big fat, lying in the mud face down failure. The question is, can you drag yourself up, with the smart boys sitting safely on a fence on the other side of the road pointing at you and laughing? Can you drag yourself up, look the world straight in the eye with confidence, wipe the mud off your shirt, notice that the mud tastes good and set up a new business selling mud pies?

Well, I have a good technique. When I fall flat on my face, I cry like a baby. Then I get up, brush the dirt off my shoulder and move on to the next challenge. That doesn't mean I put those failures out of my mind, but I learn from them and they stop me from ever getting complacent.

Some people try to put failures out of their mind and write them out of their history. I have met executives and entrepreneurs who, to listen to them you would think nothing had ever gone wrong in their entire life. But not me. My big fat failures are part of my story and I enjoy them now (not so much at the time). When I experience failure these days I can look back on these episodes and think to myself "I bounced back from that one, I can bounce back from this one."

So, here are some of my choice failures. Point and laugh, people, point and laugh. And next time you fail at something and think the whole town's laughing at you, say "Well, at least I don't look as stupid as that Ilube bloke."

No Snogging for you, lad

Wind back about 40 years. I'm in primary school coming back on the train from a school trip. In those days some trains had corridors with compartments that could seat six. Somehow I had ended up in the compartment with some of the "cool kids". I knew them all of course but I wasn't really one of them. Two boys and three girls. At some point the question of "snogging" came up.

After some discussion it was decided that we should pair up and commence kissing, until a teacher came. Two pairs immediately formed, but the third girl, who happened to be the prettiest girl in the class decided that I was unsnoggable. I sat quietly whilst my snoggability was debated. Who would. Who wouldn't. Finally it was decided that I just didn't make the cut so after a short selection exercise I was sent off to creep up and down the carriage, leaving the giggling gaggle behind, looking for the chosen one and tell him that he had to hotfoot to my carriage to be snogged by the prettiest girl in the class. He was very pleased and thanked me profusely.

But the happy ending to that story is....oh hold on. There isn't one. That's it. Fail. Cry. Bounce back. Move on. (Therapists - is this why groups of giggling girls make me break out in a cold sweat?).

#fail !

McJob Hunting

About 30 years ago I started job hunting. It was a difficult time to look for jobs, much like today actually. Recession. Lots of new graduates. A hundred applicants for each job. But I was a hard core job hunter. A one man personal recruitment agency. I applied to hundreds of companies. I laughed at rejections. I once applied five times to the same company until the European HR Director personally called me and said "Tom, you do not fit our profile so however many times you apply we will not offer you a job." I thanked her kindly, waited a couple of weeks and applied again :)

Anyway at one point, I spotted an opportunity for management trainees at McDonalds. I thought "surely I can't fail at this one". I applied and got an interview! Hurray. The interview seemed to go well but the next step was a "field trial". I was sent off to work for two days in a branch of McDonalds. I served large fries, flipped burgers, swept the street out front, told people that I had never met before to "have a nice day" and wore a funny shirt. But despite all this, a couple of days later I got a letter thanking me for my time, explaining that competition was very high and on this occasion McDonalds would not be taking my application forwards.

How can that be? Am I really the only black man in the world who can't get a job at McDonalds? Damn. If I had succeeded surely I could be a branch manager by now? Oh, well. Fail. Cry. Bounce back. Move on.

#fail !

Dialling for Dollars

In my time as a start-up guy I have pitched for investment over and over again. I would guess that I must have pitched to several hundred people. But as I keep telling people, you only need one to say yes. Getting turned down is par for the course here. I would think nothing of pitching 50-100 times to get to one "yes" and when I hear guys starting out complaining that they have done five presentations already and no-one has written a cheque I feel sorry for them.

That doesn't mean all rejections feel the same. Sometimes you really want to get a certain investor on board, you put your heart and soul in to it and you still get a big fat NO.

My worst experience of this was with a West Coast VC. I had been tracking these guys for years, not being too pushy. Building the relationship. Biding my time. Then the opportunity came up. I was in email dialogue with one of the partners, telling him that I was working on something pretty exciting. He said "hey, Tom, next time you are in the Valley swing by and pitch". I'm in!!! I seize the moment and say "How about tomorrow afternoon?". He's a bit taken aback but say okay.

So I dash to Heathrow. Grab a flight to San Francisco. Work on my presentation through the flight. Hire a car. Drive down Route 101. Get to the big boys office. Put my Game Face on. Turned my Swagga up to level 11 and walked in.

Five minutes in to my pitch. the big boys say "Hey, Tom. Let's stop you there. This is of no interest to us. Thanks for stopping by. See Yah".

Wow! I've had some knock backs. But that was a tough one. On this occasion I did actually go and sit on a bench in sunny San Fran, put my head in my hands and shed a tear. But then I heaved myself up. Shook it off. Came back to the UK and threw myself into pitching, pitching, pitching until I had raised the money I wanted to drive my business forwards.

Because that's how we roll. Fail. Cry. Bounce back. Move on.

#fail !

Alls well that ends well

I'm a planner. I come up with schemes, plans, strategies. Plan A. Plan B, Plan C. So failure never takes me completely by surprise. Even when it hits me hard, I have probably considered the possibility and run through the scenario in my mind.

Exception on one occasion.

Tunisia. Nearly 20 years ago. Hot, hot African Sahara sun. Lovely girlfriend. Diamond ring. Honourable intentions. Everything as I planned.

Me: Marry me?

She: Errr, no thanks.

Me: Oh. Ah. Okay. I didn't expect that.

#fail !

Fail. Cry. Bounce back. But in this case, not "move on". Just to show that all my failures don't end in disaster, I am happy to report that Me and She eventually got married (I can be quite persistent) and nearly 20 years later are still happily married with lovely kids and a great life. I do tend to bring this up from time to time though and She does tend to roll her eyes and heave a tired sigh.

So, people, fail. Fail fast. Fail hard. Cry. Bounce back. Move on and go on to do great things and live a happy life.

Or balance yourself carefully on the fence, point, laugh at us risk takers and be very,very careful that you don't really try anything because that way you can be certain that you will never really fail at anything.


Kate B said...

Thanks, Tom - well-timed wise words I keep my plates spinning and juggle plans A, B and C! :)

Anonymous said...

very good Tom, however in the penultimate paragraph it should spell "life" and not live.

Anonymous said...

Nice one Tom:) As from now on, I'll try my best possible not to take failure as a huge deal:D. Oh by the way, I love the marriage part really inspiring!