The art of failing and recovering, fast

Gugu Mjadu
Why effective risk-taking is critical for success

Failure is never an easy pill to swallow. But, with 70 to 80% of small businesses in South Africa reportedly closing their doors within the first 5 years, it is critical that entrepreneurs are able to recover from failures quickly, make mistakes on as small a scale as possible and – most importantly – that they learn from these shortcomings.

Speaking to this approach, Gugu Mjadu, spokesperson for the 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year® competition sponsored by Sanlam and BUSINESS/PARTNERS, unpacks an entrepreneurship trend that has been aptly dubbed fast fail. “To avoid sitting on an idea or decision for too long, the ‘fail fast’ trend encourages entrepreneurs to execute quickly and with full conviction, even if this means failing fast.”

The theory of failing fast is particularly applicable to smaller issues such as minor product changes and delegating responsibilities to staff; it encourages a little experimentation in a business.

2017 Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year®, Tumi Phake of Zenzele Fitness Group, agrees – adding that his greatest entrepreneurial failure to date could be executing ideas too slowly: “An entrepreneur’s success is determined by how quickly they can put ideas into action, so the faster and more frequently this happens, the better their chances of success”.

By jumping right in, Mjadu explains that entrepreneurs are able to cut their losses early on when something isn’t going to work, allowing them the additional time and resources required to reassess, make the necessary changes and try again. “This is a concept known as ‘pivoting’ or the ‘Agile’ philosophy.

“Pivoting refers to incremental success, via a series of small failures that result in minor tweaks and changes to an approach or product. In some cases, it may mean a really honest conversation with oneself and scrapping an idea all together,” Mjadu adds.

While failure should never be encouraged, she says that in some cases, it acts as the wakeup call that an entrepreneur may need to turn things around. “Nothing in life is guaranteed and if we really want something, we have to go after it and not let fear deter us from starting or running our business. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from mistakes including a business or product’s strengths and flaws, the key is to learn from them and quickly bounce back,” says Mjadu.

For Siphiwe Ngcobo, the founder of iLawu Hospitality Group and the winner of the 2017 Job Creator of the Year® award, this was the case with his greatest entrepreneurial failure to date – having to cease operations of his ICT business just three months after opening and losing over R300 000 in the process. “Although I wouldn’t wish this difficulty on anyone, it gave me the opportunity to take stock of my mistakes and do some much-needed, honest introspection.  This ultimately signified my turning point towards success and it has been a perpetual trajectory ever since,” admits Ngcobo.

Mjadu concludes that while failure should never be the goal or desired outcome, it can be inescapable at times. It is, however, what an entrepreneur does with that failure that sets the successful business owners apart from the rest. “Take calculated risks, recognise mistakes and use the information to change course quickly,” she says.