Has your start-up hit a rough patch? Maybe your sales are stalling, or product development pace isn’t there. Whatever the reason, seeing your startup become sluggish is gut-wrenching. You pour your heart and soul into the endeavour to make it the next big thing. But when the odds are not in your favour, and you see your dream slipping away, it’s hard.
The pain of startup failure cuts deep and despite encouragement and support from folks around you, it all counts for little when your cash runway is in freefall. You start envisioning the worst-case scenario, your self-esteem starts to shrink maybe I’m not cut out for this.
Yet, however improbable it may feel at the time, you have two choices at this moment. Either you let it drift away, and you join the startup failure club, or dust yourself off and dive back in again to make it more sure-footed and work second time around.
Many successful entrepreneurs have had the experience of a business venture going wrong. The challenges of a startup can cause any enterprise to falter, stumble and hit the buffers. This can be due to external factors, but also the many moving cogs of a new venture can cause you to overlook essential internal drivers, resulting in a tough time.
Lotus blooms in the muddy pond is a Japanese allegory to reflect upon for any startup that has stalled. It is important to press pause and learn from your oversights and mistakes, and then resolve to never repeat them. In this way, a period of unforeseen challenge can become a springboard for future, productive growth.
Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time, but if you have had a major setback, it may seem daunting to think about going again whilst you’re in the mire. Our personal lives are full of bumps in the road, no matter who you are – financial problems, health issues, a relationship breakdown – they hit us all. The challenge is how you overcome a setback. How do you dig in and hit back?
There are many success stories from entrepreneurs who succeeded despite adversity. For example. in 1955, Harlan Sanders was broke. A newly-built interstate had bypassed Corbin, Kentucky where Colonel Sanders had been cooking chicken at his restaurant for two decades. But the resourceful Sanders sold his building and started franchising his chicken restaurant concept. Within five years he had 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken locations
Decca Records rejected the Beatles, saying: We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. They have no future. Elvis Presley was fired after one performance. He was told: You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck. Thomas Edison was fired from his first two jobs. Edison ended up holding 1,093 patents and is now known as The Wizard of Menlo Park. Great personal comebacks.
Of course, we also all love great sporting comebacks too, when a team or individual looks out on the ropes, the scoreboard shows the game is over yet somehow, they claw their way back to win with the odds stacked against them. What’s your favourite sporting comeback?
Mine is probably from 1981, when Australia was on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley. Then Ian Botham strode to the crease. His swashbuckling innings of 149 made the Aussies bat again and Bob Willis ripped through the tourists with 8-43 to seal a remarkable 18-run win. England became just the second team to win a Test after following-on. There are others too.
Barcelona pulled off the biggest Champions League comeback ever to eliminate Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. Faced with a 4-0 deficit following the first leg in Paris, Barca won the second leg 6-1 – a Roberto goal in the 95th minute pulled off the impossible at the Nou Camp. No team has ever come from four goals down after the first leg of a European Cup tie.
Lasse Viren fell in the Olympic 10,000m final only to get up and win gold in a world record time. Munich, 31 August 1972. Lasse Viren was an unknown 23-year-old Finnish policeman from the village of Myrskyla. The heats of the 10,000m was his Olympic debut. When he stumbled and fell just before the halfway mark in the final, his chance of victory seemed to have gone. But he calmly got to his feet and chased his way back into contention, overtaking Britain’s David Bedford, the long-time leader, to win the gold medal and set a new world record of 27min 38.4sec.
Finally, France found themselves 24-10 down after Jonah Lomu’s two tries put New Zealand in total control of their 1999 Rugby Union World Cup semi-final. The pre-tournament favourites looked destined for the final, but then came a sudden Gallic turnaround thanks to a 28-point haul from Christophe Lamaison to leave the All Blacks reeling. Philippe Bernat-Salles sealed a remarkable 43-31 win at Twickenham.
Comeback stories like these are inspiring and should help us to believe there is hope for our own situation in the face of adversity. There are some impressive business comebacks to take inspiration from too.
Look no further than Apple, which foundered in the late 1990s before Steve Jobs resurrected it to become the most valuable company in the world. Is Apple’s triumph the greatest business comeback of all time? Consider IBM, which nearly died in 1992. It lost $5Bn, more than any other American company ever at the time. New CEO Lou Gerstner turned things around, but at a cost. He fired close to 100,000 people, changed the marketing strategy and transitioned from product to services.
Then there’s Marvel, founded in 1939, as the home of Spider Man and Captain America. Marvel had long been the comic-book world’s biggest player. But in the mid-1990s the comics market crashed, Marvel went broke, and there was no superhero to stave off bankruptcy. But after restructuring to focus on movies, Iron Man, the Avengers and X-Men are all billion-dollar franchises, and the company’s master plan to connect many of its characters in a single cinematic universe has turned it into one of pop culture’s most powerful brands.
It’s the same for a startup. Circumstances and events may have conspired to force you into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have backed out of a prospective deal, cashflow could be spiralling downwards, whilst recruiting new folks into your team may be proving troublesome.
Entrepreneurs choose the life of challenge, gambling for achievement, but also inevitably encountering times marked by confusion, chaos and disappointment. The entrepreneur consciously chooses a life in which they are likely to have higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made.
It’s a roller coaster ride where the tracks haven’t yet been fully built, but they’d have it no other way, happy going round blind corners and crazy inclines. A good part of it is fighting the urge to revert back to their comfort zone. Having to pick themselves up from setbacks, dust themselves off and go again, is an accepted part of the journey.
Is there a Playbook for this? Well, Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way, offers valuable insight and guidance, showing how to be prepared for knockbacks and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup. Here are some quotes from his book, which I think say a lot about building your mindset to make those recoveries.
Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in your startup life. Persevere, pivot or pack-up?
Don’t panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm. Sometimes the best solution is to do nothing. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say ‘stop’ and press pause, but that can be the best solution at times.
Don’t look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic, but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation, and resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase comeback success.
If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. Equally, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mentality or feel sorry for yourself. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.
We must be willing to roll the dice. Be prepared for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on. Understand that any decision is usually better than no decision.
The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. Surround yourself with high achievers. Avoid toxic people like the plague. To be remarkable, you have to expect unreasonable things of yourself. In a startup, when you overcome one obstacle, another one waits in the shadows.
Yet, however improbable it may feel at the time, the harsh truth is you have two choices at this moment. Either you keep mourning over the failed business or dust yourself off and dive back in again to make it right this time around.
Bill Gates tasted failure with his first company, Traf-O-Data. How did he overcome this early failure and come back stronger? He saw failure as an opportunity. Failure definitely isn’t the end of the world. Indeed, it is a part of the entrepreneurial journey that will lead those to success who don’t give up. So, the first step to overcome the failure is to start seeing it as an option, not the ending.
There is no magic formula to get you back on your feet instantly. Be patient and don’t give up. Now that you know how to approach failure, go ahead and take your swings. Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort. Standing over the precipice, the first step to getting somewhere different is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.
Many misunderstand what’s at work in turning a setback into a comeback. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your entrepreneurial thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, and expecting to go one better. Make sure the real enemy doesn’t live between your ears.
What makes something special is not just what you have to gain, but what you feel there is to lose. The real story of entrepreneurship is being knocked to your knees and then coming back stronger, hearts and minds. The next move is always yours. That’s the essence of it.