March 20, 2013

Failure can be inspiring - if you can overcome the psychology

Updated on April 6 2013 to include a reference to a recent article
One of my very favorite documentaries ever is This is the story of Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and his best friend Tom Herman and their start-up experience during the dot com boom to bubble in the late 90's. Kaleil and Tom went from getting a few thousand dollars in startup funds from family members to raising $60 million dollars in venture capital. Their startup grew at a phenomenal rate but eventually crashed. Total failure. The documentary chronicles the rise – and eventual fall – of these entrepreneurs in real time.

I had just launched my own company around the same time as the documentary was filmed and I was so excited about the idea of watching the full story of a startup that when the documentary came out, we rented out an entire small theater in the US and invited all our employees, friends and families to watch it. I keep the documentary on my tablet and I watch it again every time I feel like getting inspired. Yes, inspired. 

Almost every entrepreneur experiences failure. And although there have been countless articles about the benefits of failure the reality is that when your startup fails, you feel like a failure. You have let down people who trusted you, sometimes with their money, you have let down your employees and partners, you have let yourself down and even your dreams. And as many times as you read an article about how failure is good, at that moment you feel like your world has ended. 

The worst part about failure for an entrepreneur is what it does to your self-esteem. After all, it is because you believed in yourself that you got as far as you did. When you start questioning yourself, wondering if you are really worthy of being an entrepreneur, it becomes very hard to start a new venture or to look forward to a new project. 

Advice from friends and family rings hollow: "You will recover from this." "You will build an even bigger startup." While you are asking yourself, how do I recover from what feels like a tsunami? You feel as drained as a wrung-out wet rag.  

The reality is that some people don't recover. I might venture to say that most don't recover. That is, they don't go on to build a bigger, better startup or any startup at all; they don't ever develop any idea that gains any traction, and they disappear into the oblivion of 'employeedom'.

But those who do recover, those who do find the inner strength to believe in themselves once again, those who rise to fight another day, well they are the ones that are able to translate failure into success. Many people will say that failure teaches you all the lessons you need to start afresh. But what they forget to tell you is that you need to move beyond the lesson that you are a screw-up. This is a psychological battle with yourself that is key to rising again. 

I have met many entrepreneurs that never got over the psychological effect of their failure. They knew all the lessons, and if they could do it over they would certainly apply these lessons to the new venture. But they never got a chance to do so because they couldn't find the inner strength, the self-confidence, to take a shot at starting again.

So how can failure be inspiring? When you see someone get over that hump; when you hear that story of psychological victory over oneself. When someone shows you that despite what seems to be an insurmountable loss, their dream is still alive.  Because then you begin to think, if they can overcome, then I can overcome; and your own journey through recovery begins. 

Kaleil I.Tuzman
Back to, Kaleil and Tom. You see, their startup was a failure, yes. But Kaleil is a great example of turning your failure into success. He has overcome the psychology and has gone on to launch successful startups. His story continues to be an inspiration. When you watch the documentary, even during the worst of times, you just know he will make it. Tom? …well he did get the lessons down
As for me, whenever I feel down and out, I like to experience success, even if it is vicariously through a movie. This helps give me the energy I need to overcome my own psychology and to see failure for what it is: another step towards success.
Update: just two weeks after I published this post, I came across this article about an entrepreneur who didn't recover from failure. It is heartbreaking and food for thought. 
….Despite his many friends and backers, Sherman ultimately bore the burden of Ecomom's success or failure alone.....
….In the past, failure was very contained," another entrepreneur said. "When you failed, you felt bad around your family, the people you raised money from, but it wasn't as public. Failure in an era of social media and social video and global events is a very public thing….
Read the full story: The Story Of A Failed Startup And A Founder Driven To Suicide

Sad example of one entrepreneur who couldn't overcome his psychology... 


  1. 17 years in my own IT company and I relate to this artical, celebrate the ups and downs they teach you valuable life lessons.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Failure is inevitable with being an entrepreneur. No matter how well-established you may become you still have outside forces such as competition and the economy that have the potential to cripple your profits. But the key is to look at failure as a learning opportunity to improve your efforts. When my company was going through tough times a few years ago, I realized I needed to regroup and seek new opportunities. So, I decided to institute a truck fleet management system. As a result, I was able to reduce my fleet's fuel consumption costs, improve efficiency, and enhance safe driving practices. Because of this innovative initiative, I was able to turn my business around.

  4. Great Article :

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. All I can say is don't give up. Failure can be just an experience for you. You still have time to be successful. If others can do it, you can do it too. Just believe in yourself. Don't lose hope. Inspirational article

  7. Remarkable blog! I have no words to praise, it has really allured me.mark curry

  8. Hello Rebecca Enonchong. I just followed you on medium.
    I have been a web developer since 2008 but have been busy with offline businesses. I now think its time to become a startup founder and i have a couple of great ideas i am working one currently and i could use all the advice from experienced tech founders i can get. can i have a chat with you from any of the social media platforms or your contact? i will be very happy if you could find the time. EMAIL...MUKOROMUDIAGA@GMAIL.COM, PHONE...07033654016. THANKS and i find this post very inspiring but most of all i need advice so i can avoid any unseen pitfalls on the road ahead. thanks

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  13. Well, in order to succeed, you have to fail SEVERAL times.

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