During a recent small-business session at Central Piedmont Community College, someone mentioned the “fail fast” concept and wanted to know my thoughts.
For those unfamiliar, the “fail fast” mantra has been around for years and can have slightly different meanings, based on who’s taking. At its most extreme, it advises entrepreneurs to bail quickly if a new venture launches to disappointing results. No point wasting time and money on things that don’t catch fire, or so the thinking goes.
While the “fail fast” concept has merit, it doesn’t completely square with my journey as a small-business owner. In fact, nearly every success I’ve had was more a result of “design-do,” a competing concept I learned from a business coach at Columbia University.
“Design-do” recognizes that success is often a process and that failure need not be final. It encourages entrepreneurs to try-try again … but only after learning from initial mistakes and making necessary adjustments.
For me, it seems that my entire journey into small-business ownership has been a lesson in “design-do.” The good news is that, for those with a stomach to stick it out, the process does work.
In the months that preceded my 2008 launch, an instructor told our class that we should give our fledgling businesses no more than two years to succeed. By then, he said, we should quit and return to employment if we were not making at least as much money as we did in our previous jobs.
Was that bad advice?
You be the judge. Every owner eventually must answer that question based on a host of facts and individual circumstances.
As I see it, setting an arbitrary time limit to achieve success, whether relating to a product or an entire business, is folly. It also discounts my strongly held belief that, for some of us, the decision to pursue a dream in business cannot be tucked neatly into a cash flow analysis or income statement.
In business, the reality of failure is ever present. Some of my brightest ideas – or what I thought were bright ideas – never caught fire. I can recall at least two where the “fail fast” mantra certainly would have saved me money, and more than a few hair follicles.
On the other hand, I can also point to examples where perseverance (design-do) paid off.
Earlier this year I wrote about my decision to embark on a “listening tour” with vendors and customers. The purpose was to shape 2014 goals based on the feedback I heard.
So far the process is yielding some promising results, but not without its own share of pain associated with readjustments.
My point: Unless we are fortunate enough to achieve overnight riches like some of the Internet rock stars we read about, most of us must be content to build our businesses despite the inevitable failures.
Fail fast? I don’t think so. It’s more a matter of succeed steadily.
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.
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