How to leverage your next failure

Jul 5, 2022

By Lyndon

When I was in grad school I worked for the admissions department, and my job was interviewing potential candidates for our MBA program. One of my favorite questions to ask people was, “What do you consider your biggest professional failure?”

This achieved 2 things for me:

  1. It threw a curve ball
  2. It was a window into how they thought.

If you’re confident that you’re growing and learning by taking ownership, you’ll bring up a failure where the sh*t really hit the fan. If you’re blaming things that go wrong on things outside of your control then you’ll probably never view yourself as failing, you were just around when it went bad but it wasn’t your fault.

You may point out, I’m making a pretty big assumption that everyone has failed, and you’re right. At this point in my life, I truly believe everyone has experienced setbacks. What defines people and businesses is how they choose to respond to setbacks.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple, the company he founded. It took 12 years before he came back (Apple bought NeXT), saved the company, and turned it into what it is today.
  • SpaceX was started with $100 million of Elon Musk’s money. Enough for 3 rocket launches. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Exploded. Elon doubled down and put in more money and launch 4 worked.
  • Instagram was the result of a massive pivot. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger the founders of Instagram spent a-whole-year developing Burbn into a full app they never launched, they scrapped it and built Instagram in 8 weeks with just the photo, comment, and like capabilities from Burbn.

“Failing forward means that a person embraces failing as stepping stones for future success” (foodbusinesspros). By shifting your perspective that setbacks and failures are part of the path to success you’re able to start seeing opportunities where others would think about throwing in the towel.

What does this mean for a small business?

As a visual learner, it made a big difference when someone put this concept into a chart for me. I’ve done my best to recreate it for you (bracing myself for comments on my handwriting 😬).

How this works is the X-axis (horizontal) is Time, and the Y-axis (vertical) is Success you’re seeing in your business.

Many people think when you start a business it’ll be hard at first, then smooth sailing as you start seeing more success. Sadly that’s not the case, it’s normal to see setbacks frequently as you grow. Remember SpaceX struggling in its early days? In December of 2021 Elon musk sent a letter to his employees stating a genuine risk of going bankrupt, by then SpaceX was a $100 billion-dollar company.

I digress, back to the chart. Success actually usually happens in “waves” or “levels” with troughs/setbacks to overcome inbetween.

The Cherry-Picked Evolution of Jo&Co for example’s sake

To make this more tangible let’s think of a simplified version of points on the path Jo & Co took to grow. At the beginning we started out as a Wedding Photography company. We quickly saw success selling our work to friends and family that we already knew, this gave us the first “wave” of success and puts us (Jo – pre full time Lyndon days) in high hopes.

After a while it started getting harder to find leads for potential clients, bringing us to the first trough (or low). Jo used this time to do some rethinking of how she was marketing, and took a few courses to learn how other people were marketing outside of friends & family and get much better at the whole social media game.

Slightly rethinking marketing was a boon, it takes us into our next wave of success. We have the best month we’ve ever had and sell a ton of clients. It puts us in an incredible position looking forward as a business.

After a few months though it starts to sink in just how much work all the weddings we booked are going to be. It’s non-stop for a couple of months and we start burning out. The definition of success starts to shift a little bit because even if we’re making good money we’re starting to burn out and starting to question if it’s really worth it just to make money. This brings us to the second trough on the chart, being so burnt out it’s time to take a break and rethink some things.

Over a slow season, we put in some time thinking about how we can start bringing in money that isn’t so personally labor-intensive. Since we’d taken courses when we were learning how to be wedding photographers we start thinking about how we could sell a course as well, diversify a bit and do less 1:1 work as a business. In a few short months, we have our first course developed and ready to launch.

After a few trial & error launches we have a successful launch, we’re really excited about the possibility of it becoming a bigger part of our business. We’ve made it to the next level of success as a business, and right about the time we start feeling “safe” like there are no more lows in business Instagram decides to start making major changes to their platform.

As a small business selling photography and courses most of our marketing was happening on Instagram, so as soon as engagement starts dropping and fewer leads are coming in this is a pretty big low. It carries a lot of emotions and fear because it’s risking our business and livelihood.

But just like all the other troughs we start looking for the opportunities presented that could take us to the next level. If everyone is currently annoyed at Instagram there are fewer people taking advantage of the new features that are rolling out, which means early adopters will get an extra boost by the algorithm.

Putting in a little extra effort to see what features Instagram is most excited about launching, in a couple of weeks we start seeing engagement and leads reaching higher levels than before the low. This starts bringing in clients that we never even thought we could before taking us to the next wave of success.

That sounds way too simple (and positive)

So yea, that’s a super oversimplification of a few of the things that we went through as a business. But we’ve also been through a lot more than 3 lows, we’re not wedding photogs anymore, we’re not currently selling any courses, moving states multiple times created more lows, bringing myself (Lyndon) on full-time created many unique lows, adding a membership was a whole new different experience and others we haven’t even talked about publicly.

Taking this all the way back to where we started with asking people about failure, this is the type of real things that people and companies go through. It’s normal (and expected) to have highs and lows.

But this isn’t all negative, what you can do when you hit one of those troughs / lows to speed up your bounce to the next wave? Even if it’s normal and it happens to everyone, no one really enjoys being at the bottom. Here’s three things to make the best of your next (or current) low:

  1. Perspective: One of the best things you can do is start thinking about things in the bigger picture. If you’re operating with tunnel vision when you see your success going down it can feel like the bottom is falling out of your world, but if you can see that on a bigger scale you’ve bounced back from drops even better every previous time, you can turn it around to going back up even easier.
  2. Find the opportunity: “Never let a good crisis go to waste” is one of my favorite quotes. Generally, when something is going south a change is needed to turn it around, seizing the opportunity that you can come out of it even better than before by identifying the opportunities created through your low point. Taking hard looks at your business can be pretty eye-opening.
  3. Know you’re not alone: Often times when things go wrong in your life or business it can be isolating, you feel like no one else understands what you’re going through. I’d say that 9 out of 10 times you’re wrong, we’ve recently been taught that with lows we’ve gone through. Opening up to others about what you’re going through can be comforting, and it can even open doors to the solution because they may have been through the exact same thing before.

At the end of the day…

You know your life and business better than anyone else, but sometimes it’s easy to get so lost in knowing you’re business that you forget to take a step back, shift your perspective and ask for help.

I’d like to challenge you to talk about your lows more often. As a company, we’re working on being more transparent with all of you on what we’re going through and breaking down the perception on Instagram that everyone lives a perfect, picturesque life. Joelle wrote a blog post last week breaking down Our Honest Q2 Recap and she goes pretty deep on some of our lows last quarter and how we’re bouncing back from them. If you choose to share your lows (or this blog 😜) on Instagram give us a tag to make sure we see, we love seeing honestly what people are going through.

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