Richard Branson on Embracing Failure
Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: I have always been fearless, and gone after everything I wanted. I launched a business selling my designs a few years ago, and it succeeded, but I had to close it due to the recession. Now, having just earned a master’s degree, I have decided to launch my own design firm rather than look for a job, and for the first time in my life I find that I am paralyzed with fear. How can I face down this fear in order to go after my dreams? -- Tatiana Poblah, Montreal, Canada
Fear is something everyone must learn to cope with when tackling life’s challenges, but this is especially important for entrepreneurs, who are likely to face many hard choices in the process of getting a business off the ground. And in the early stages of running a new enterprise, the way you handle pressure can often make the difference in whether it survives.
You may need to make some tough calls. During Virgin’s early years, one difficult decision we had to make involved Virgin Records, which at one point was in desperate need of cash to sign bigger artists. My partners, Nik Powell and Simon Draper, were split on what to do: Nik wanted to conserve our resources and slowly collect money through our retail operations; Simon wanted to invest heavily in Virgin Records, betting on the notion that we could find the next big artists that way. We needed quick growth, so I took the riskier gamble, following Simon’s advice over Nik’s. It turned out to be the right decision, but it took a lot of courage -- and not just from me, but everyone on staff.
I’ve always found that the first step in overcoming fear is figuring out exactly what you’re afraid of. In your case, I wonder: Is your anxiety a reflection of doubts about your business plan? Or is it rooted in your experience with your previous venture?
If it is the former, and you are having doubts about your idea, why not take your concerns to a key friend or mentor and carefully run through your business plan? Talking everything through with a trusted confidant, from your business’ unique selling points to how it will stand out among competitors, is a good way to help calm fears and give you some perspective and confidence. Sometimes even the simple act of discussing your plan will highlight things you’re unsure about -- often, small, unresolved issues can be at the root of an entrepreneur’s anxieties.
But if your previous venture’s end is what is making you so hesitant, try to take some comfort in the fact that most entrepreneurs fail when they launch their first businesses. Failing doesn’t mean that you’re not cut out to run your own business. In fact, many venture capital investors evaluate potential partners on how they reacted to a failed business, seeing it as a test of character, rather than a mark against them. The key to bouncing back is to learn whatever lessons you can from the experience so that you can avoid making the same mistakes in the next launch. This will help you to overcome your fear, take a leap of faith and try again.
The experience of launching one of your first businesses reminds me of the adventures and challenges I have embarked on over the years to promote Virgin and put our businesses on the map. There were countless times during our record-breaking hot-air balloon trips when I wondered whether we were going to make it back down to earth alive. But every time, I learned lessons from making mistakes during previous trips and was able to adapt.
Another example: A few years ago I was helping to launch Virgin America’s new route from San Francisco to Las Vegas -- and upon arriving at our casino hotel, I was taken to the top floor, given a harness and told I was going to jump off the side of the building. It was dark and windy, and I knew I should go back inside and tell everyone we needed to postpone the jump. Instead, I was persuaded to go through with it. The wind was up, and within seconds I found myself banging down the side of the building, ripping my trousers and bruising my backside. It was an extremely painful lesson, learned the hard way. But learning from mistakes (and a combination of good fortune and adrenalin) is what has gotten me through on many occasions.
Overcoming fear is not necessarily as easy as jumping off a building, but it might be easier than what you’ve done: Watching a business fail after putting your heart and soul into trying to make it succeed. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Starting a new enterprise from scratch and gathering the nerve to take risks that are similar to those you took last time can be daunting for any entrepreneur. Just remember that picking yourself up from a failed business in order to try again is the bravest choice you can make.
Let’s hear from other entrepreneurs: Has one of your businesses ever failed? How did you find the courage to try again?