Reversal Of Fortune

How to fail your way to success.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the September 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

"Fail often to succeed sooner." Jennifer White's advice isn't just empty talk. White's first business failed, leaving her $65,000 in debt, but she bounced back to start three successful companies. Today, the owner of Cincinnati-based The JWC Group is a success coach, speaker and author with clients such as AT&T and Hewlett-Packard. In her new book, Work Less, Make More (Kendall/Hunt Publishing, $25, 800-853-6218), White shares proven tips for using failure to succeed.

Business Start-Ups: How did you feel when your business failed?

Jennifer White: At the time, my brother was enrolling in Harvard's MBA program. It occurred to me he was spending two years and $65,000 investing in himself to learn how to run a business, whereas I had spent $65,000 and two years investing in a business and getting a real-life education. It made me realize failure was actually the greatest education I could get.

BSU: How were you able to take that perspective?

White: What I did--and suggest my clients do--is to look at failure (which I prefer to call a mistake or experiment) as a stepping stone to something greater. Failing forces you to take a good look at yourself, ask "What's not working?" and see how to make it better.

When people fail, they go through a debilitating, obsessive cycle, [beating themselves up] over and over again. To get out of that cycle, you've got to change your thinking to "This was a great experience because of what I learned."

Think about times you've failed, whether in school, a past job or your personal life. At that time, it may have been the worst moment of your life. But looking back, you'll see failure was a pivotal moment that forced you to take a different path--a path to a better place.

BSU: Does it help to get outside perspectives?

White: Absolutely. Two good ways to do so: First, volunteer for a nonprofit organization, helping people who are on the brink of despair. You'll become very grateful for what you have. Second, call five entrepreneurs you know and ask them to describe their biggest failures. Ninety-nine percent of successful business owners have failed at some point and will tell you it's the greatest thing they've ever done.

BSU: How can a start-up entrepreneur get over the fear of failure?

White: Build a financial reserve. Most businesses start on a shoestring, without adequate funds to fail. If you only have $3,000 to invest in a business and you're making a decision that costs $3,000, you don't have the freedom to fail. If you have $15,000, making a $3,000 error is not such a big deal.

BSU: How can entrepreneurs deal with day-to-day "failures," like rejection?

White: Entrepreneurs ride a roller coaster--one day you're high, the next you're low. The best way to get through the lows is to be clear about your vision. When it seems as if a mistake is the end of the world, sit back, look at what you're creating and ask "Is it worth the fight to get where I want to be?" If the answer is "no," your vision isn't big enough. You need something compelling to inspire you to move past lows.

BSU: Besides underfinancing and lack of vision, what else causes business failure?

White: One cause is developing a product or service no one wants. Another is developing a business that doesn't support who you are: For example, someone who loves golf may open a golf shop--forgetting that although they love playing golf, they hate retailing.

The way to succeed is to make sure your business supports who you are. If you enjoy 80 percent of what you do on a daily basis, you have a winning combination. If you enjoy only 20 percent, it's time to find something else.

For a free newsletter, ordering information and White's 10-step process for working less and making more, visit

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