Keep It Coming

No Pain, Yes Gain

If you've never started your own business, you might start thinking "OK, first I need to lose all my money. Maybe I can even develop a drinking problem. And then, when things really look bleak . . . "

Ah, but you'd be wrong. Failure may be a frequent part of business, but you can lessen your risks. "Try to contain your failures," suggests Kevin Donlin, 37, of Minneapolis. "Think of your business as a ship and failure as an ocean. If a fire breaks out, you want a fire door on that ship to contain the flames."

In 1994, the mail-order business Donlin was running made a laughable five bucks. In 1995, his e-publishing business netted $95 in sales. Sure, those two businesses may sound like colossal failures, but they were part-time gigs, amateurish efforts that cost him nothing but time-many weekends over many months.

But you know what? "It's only failure if you haven't learned something from it," says Donlin, and, indeed, he launched a resume-writing company in 1996 and, in 1998, was able to quit his day job. "And I haven't bought a tie since," says Donlin, whose one-man operations, Guaranteed Resumes LLC and Guaranteed Marketing LLC, brought in more than $100,000 in 2001.

However you start your second business-or your 22nd-you can't become a success by moping about your past failures or predicting your future failings. Comedian Jonathan Winters once concluded: "I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it." The future of your business is your call. Do you want to be a Sir Edmund Hillary or an anonymous beekeeper?

You Did What?

So you're thinking of starting a company for the first time? And you'd like to learn from somebody else's blunders and not your own? Then talk to people. Talk to experts who've been there-like Dave Power, a marketing partner at Charles River Ventures in Waltham, Massachusetts. Power, who has more than 20 years of experience in business, has seen many start-ups tank and feels there are two central reasons entrepreneurs fail at what they do:

  • Mediocre "metooism." Power uses the word "metooism" to refer to a common instinct among entrepreneurs. (Think, "Me, too!") It's that desire to say "Oh, our company is good at that," when that isn't really what you do best. "It's being good at everything, but not the best at anything," says Powers, who advises having a product or service that's either the first on the market or the best. It's the one way to be noticed in this crazy, mixed-up world. But if you make the "first" or "only" claim, "be prepared to defend it to the death," advises Powers.
  • Making a big splash. It's wonderful to make a strong first impression, but if it takes all your resources to let the public know you're alive, you may have little energy or funds for the long haul. Says Power, "A cannonball makes a big splash, but it doesn't win the diving contest."

After numerous setbacks, Geoff Williams has written for LIFE, Ladies' Home Journal and other publications.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the April 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Keep It Coming.

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