5 lessons on failure from Detroit entrepreneurs

"Failure" is a harsh word. It often comes with stigma and shame. And fear of it prevents people from taking risks to create something truly innovative. 

In an effort to empower failure, Model D, with support from TechTown Detroit, has been publishing personal stories from entrepreneurs about their biggest failures, and how they came out the other end wiser and better equipped to take on new opportunities. 

On July 27, to further the discussion of failure, Model D co-hosted a High Growth Happy Hour event at TechTown Detroit with support from the New Economy Initiative.

Amanda Brewington, former owner of Always Brewing Detroit, kicked off the event by regaling the audience with her funny and poignant story of the sale of her coffee shop. Then Ned Staebler, president and CEO of TechTown, hosted a discussion with a panel of local entrepreneurs. 

Staebler gave some introductory remarks which included the important reminder: "We get trained to think successful people succeed all the time. But that's b.s. Successful people fail all the time. We need to get over our fear of failure because it's easy not to fail—just don't do anything. If you fail, it means you're on the right path, making a real difference."

Here are 5 more lessons from that discussion.

1. Failure is not that bad

Everyone on the panel admitted that failure, when in the midst of it, is like a punch to the gut. But even though some failed spectacularly, they all survived and later flourished. 

When Lee Shows Padgett was thinking about starting another business, Busted Bra Shop, after her first one closed, she and her husband reminded each other that, "We did something that didn't work, we've been there, we faced the worse case scenario. And it wasn't so bad."

Henry Balanon, chief product officer for Autobooks, has been employed a number of times and founded a number of companies. He was fired from a few, and had to shut down a few himself. "At some point I realized that when one thing ends, other opportunities will keep popping up," he said. "Continue to be brave and move forward."

Niles Heron, principal and founder of Simple Machines Consulting, keeps two quotes on his fridge: "The barn burned down, now I can see the moon" and "In the end, it's gonna be alright. If it's not alright, then it's not the end." 

"It's just not gonna be that damn bad," he said. "Quit your job. You'll figure it out and be happier in long run. You're not going to starve."

2. Failure is the best teacher 

Staeber, in both his essay for Model D and on stage at TechTown, related his failed bid for the Michigan Senate—both how much he worked and how much it hurt afterwards. But when the dust settled, he took time to analyze what went wrong. 

There were smaller things he could have done differently in execution and tactics. But then there were "bigger picture" lessons. "I learned a lot about myself, and it gave me a lot of direction for the future," he said. "When you fail, you learn about what you can and can't do. what you like and don't like. … You learn who your friends are—and who they aren't. Some people stopped calling me after I lost. You find out who's going to support and love you no matter what."

Because of these lessons, he added, "I'd never hire someone for a big position who hasn't failed before."

3. Society sets people up to fail

Without opportunity, you don't even have the chance to succeed or fail. And some people in society, simply by the circumstances they're born into, don't get that opportunity. 

Staebler said that one of TechTown's mottos is: "Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity isn't. … It's why we exist—to get people that network."

Heron said this was especially true in neighborhoods of color, like the one he grew up in. "At the end of the day, the country you live in judges you by the top of its ceiling, not by the top of yours. Whether you're a woman who isn't expected to learn math or not speak up, or a man who isn't expected by the color of skin to show up or be reliable. We get so caught up looking at the finish line and who crosses it, but never think about who's not running the race."

Balanon echoed these sentiments when he spoke about the opportunities and expectations for his daughter. "Six years ago, my answer would have been that anyone can do anything—then I had a daughter. That's when I started noticing gender inequality, and have spent all my days since making sure society doesn't cripple the potential of my daughter.

"She'll have to work a little harder to get same things others do," he added.

Padgett experienced this firsthand herself. "In our society, women, especially when they're younger, weren't really expected to do much with math or going to college. My dad was a chemist and he said I couldn't do what he did. And now I have chemistry degree. I think we too often get pigeonholed into things."

4. Failure is perception

Just because something you did failed, does that mean you're a failure? Who gets to use that label? People often apply to themselves, and society does as well, but in either case it's not necessary deserved. 

"To me, failure is others people's expectations," said Hassan Bazzi, director of Regional Opportunities for ACCESS. "It's something we fear because of what other people will think about us. With males in our culture, we're expected to get in positions to provide for our families and be successful. That's what we're taught to become."

In his essay for Model D, Heron wrote, "Failure is a title you judged, juried, executed, and decided to carry around with you all by your ownzie," and later added, "I just don't think (hope, pray, and please don't pop my bubble) that anyone would call me a 'failure,' no matter how much feeling like one has defined my life."

In other words, try to be as honest as possible with yourself about why you or others are labeling you a failure. It's probably not justified.

5. To take huge risks, you have to be a little crazy, and lot confident

If you have no fear of failure, you might be a crazy or just very confident. And to get over the hump, you might need a little of both. 

Brewington talked about the full shifts she worked at her coffee shop, only to lock the door and to work waitressing tables. She would talk to her customers a lot to distract them from how long it took to boil water and make their pour-overs. "I'm sure plenty of them thought I was crazy," she said. 

She only sold the coffee shop because she was getting ill—from stress. To work that hard, for that long, for so little monetary gain is a little crazy. But she cherishes the experience and has no regrets. 

"There's got to be some sort of crazy gene in me. I'm serious," said Bazzi. "Because some of the things I've done … have been irresponsible. There's been moments where you think, 'You should get a job and be more stable.'" 

He then told a story about how, after one of his businesses failed, "I eventually reached a point where I was mentally raw and had no fear. I went to L.A and knew no one. Within two days, I had place to stay and had the nerve to walk into a management company and say, 'I'll work for free for two weeks and if you like me, hire me.'"

They did. And today Bazzi still manages a number of nationally-renowned musical acts. 

This article is part of a series where entrepreneurs tell their stories of failure. It is sponsored by TechTown Detroit. Read more articles in the series here
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Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.