Why failure is integral to success

Growth and strategy

15 February 2018

In the words of American businessman Kevin Iverson, "If something's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong." Iverson's career shows what you can achieve when you aren't afraid of failure – he took Nucor Steel from the brink of bankruptcy to become the largest steel manufacturer in the USA.

He knew that failure is nothing to be ashamed of: if you learn from your business mistakes, they can be the stepping stones to future success. "Get on with it and see if it works," he said.

Failure can make you determined

When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. JK Rowling was depressed and unemployed before Harry Potter was published, and she credits failure with giving her the drive to succeed. In a commencement speech at Harvard, the billionaire author spoke about the benefits of failure, saying "had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged."

Every failure is a learning opportunity

The first thing to do after you fail is to acknowledge it. The second thing is to try and understand why it happened. Sit down with a piece of paper and write down what went wrong, and what caused the problem, however painful and embarrassing it might be. Don't forget to identify what worked well in your failed projects, too. When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, his next venture was a flop. But the software that company produced formed the basis of his triumphant return to Apple, and still lives on in millions of Macs and iPhones today.

Failure means feedback

The "Fail Fast, Fail Often" mantra can often be heard in Silicon Valley, and has even spawned a business book. It encourages action over endless planning. Instead of spending months perfecting your offering, only to find out that it doesn't suit your consumer, it's better to launch an imperfect version right away and rapidly improve based on feedback. That's how Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz realised he was onto something with his Italian-style coffee shops – if he just dropped the all-Italian menus and non-stop opera music.

Failure forces you to adapt

Sometimes failure is completely out of your hands. Technology and markets change quickly, and being able to pivot can mean the difference between carving out a new future for yourself or sinking without a trace. Take Kodak, for instance. Few people use film anymore, and most of us are content to take photographs with our phones. Instead of folding, the company has made a move into cryptocurrency as part of a platform that will help photographers and photo agencies keep track of their digital rights and monetise their work. When they announced the idea, share prices more than tripled.

It's easier to take bold risks and learn from failures when you know that your business is protected. AXA can help you ensure you're covered against ups and downs, so you've got time to find that winning formula.