Where I Live, Entrepreneurs Are Afraid To Talk About Failure -- And It's Hurting Their Businesses
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Lesley Donna Williams saw the bus only a second before it made impact. She was driving fast across Johannesburg, South Africa, trying to make it to an important meeting, when she turned at an intersection without checking for oncoming traffic. The bus T-boned her. Williams was whipped around like a rag doll. The car was totaled.
These were stressful times at Williams’ company, the Johannesburg arm of Impact Hub, a global network of business incubators and co-working spaces. She was pulling 16-hour days and feeling alone and adrift in a sea of risk. She barely saw her family. Friends had stopped calling. She felt sickly all the time. Her doctor told her that her immune system was compromised. She ignored him.
“I was so disconnected from my need for self-care that I wouldn’t acknowledge that I was just in a bad car accident and that I should take the afternoon off,” she says. “Or at least cancel my meeting. It didn’t even occur to me that it was an option.”
Every entrepreneur has been there at some point. Limits are pushed, and personal well-being is ignored in favor of serving the endless needs of the business. “Entrepreneurship is traumatic and a very intense experience, and I think every entrepreneur goes through more or less the same thing,” says Raphael Afaedor, co-founder and CEO of the grocery delivery company Supermart.ng in Lagos, Nigeria. But it would take years for Williams to understand what truly ailed her during that time. It wasn’t just stress. It wasn’t just that she felt like a failure. It was that she felt like a failure and happened to live in a place where failure is the one thing nobody ever wants to talk about: Africa.
In America, as everyone knows, entrepreneurs love talking about failure. “Fail fast, fail often” has become a mantra of Silicon Valley, where fortunes are made by people who only years prior had crashed a well-funded startup into the ground. Failure has become almost a badge of pride -- an experience recast as a lesson learned, a skin thickened, an entrepreneur seasoned and more fully prepared to succeed.
In Africa’s emerging startup communities, however, failure still carries a heavy stigma. Failure doesn’t make you stronger; failure makes you a failure. And the consequences of an entrenched unwillingness to talk about it can be bad for local economies and catastrophic for small-business people. African entrepreneurs say they’ve seen peers go into hiding, abandon their communities and in some tragic cases, even commit suicide. They’ve also seen brilliant entrepreneurs cut their careers short, afraid of taking risks that might not work out.
But they’re also seeing something else these days. Conversations are beginning. Communities are forming. A movement is afoot. Entrepreneurs are realizing that by not embracing failure, they set themselves up for even deeper, more systemic troubles. And what they’ve learned -- the ways to find value in failure and force each other outside comfort zones -- can be an inspiration to anyone, regardless of where they live.
Together, they’re finding that failure is universal. And if failure is universal, that means something else is, too. Something better: resilience.
In August 2015, the Nigerian site Techpoint published a story about a local entrepreneur named Sheriff Shittu. His home decor startup, Showroom.ng, was blowing up, it reported. “Growth has surpassed my expectations,” he was quoted as saying, predicting he’d turn hundreds of thousands of carpenters into millionaires by 2020.
Exactly one year later, in August 2016, Shittu himself posted a story on Medium headlined 12 Years a Hustler, Time to Go Home. He’d burned out. His company had been failing for a long time, he admitted, and he’d been unable to acknowledge it. “I think personally, I wasn’t introspective enough as I was just riding with the tide,” he wrote.
The article caused a stir in Nigeria’s startup scene. iRoko founder Jason Njoku, who created what’s often called the Netflix of Africa, remembers talking about it with another large tech founder at a polo club. “That’s what happens when you talk too much,” the man told Njoku. To him, Shittu’s problem wasn’t the failure; it was the boasting.
Sheriff Shittu’s example is instructive for two big reasons. First, he was afraid to admit he was struggling, which is not unusual. “You’ll find this common thread through any third world country,” says Baraka Kasongo, CEO of an on-demand translation company called Volatia, who’s originally from Rwanda. “We’re taught to not let anyone see you complaining, to have a positive outlook and be grateful.” (I saw this myself, as a Kenyan who studied in New York City. My classmates would often share their anxieties with a professor or challenge a grade they thought was unfair -- something I hadn’t encountered in Nairobi.)
Second, Shittu was grappling with a middle-class society’s uneasiness with entrepreneurship. Africa is impossible to summarize with generalizations -- there are too many cultures here to do that -- but I’ve always found author Alex Perry’s observation to be spot-on. He once wrote, “If European individualism was summed up in the 17th century by René Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum -- ‘I think, therefore I am’ -- Africa’s communalist counter was ‘I am because you are.’” This is a land of communal thinking. To be an entrepreneur here is to step outside that community and say, “I want to try something new.”
That can be a hard thing for people to accept, particularly in middle- and upper-class families. “Your parents tell you, ‘Be a doctor; everything else is a gamble,’” says William Senyo, cofounder and CEO of the Impact Hub in Accra, Ghana. Entrepreneurs end up in an emotional bind. If they depart from the beaten path, it becomes that much harder to admit something is wrong.
And striking out on your own is difficult here. Though business is booming on the continent -- investments in African tech startups show hockey-stick-like growth; coworking spaces have increased fivefold since 2012; tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are touring around; and Uber, IBM, eBay and Netflix have set up shop -- but there are still serious structural challenges that complicate any entrepreneur’s journey. The talent pool is shallower, the infrastructure is less developed, financial and political structures are less stable and institutional capital is scarcer. America may be awash in investors, but here, the joke goes, funding comes from the three Fs: friends, family and fools. We don’t mean “fools” in a derogatory way; it’s just that who else would put money into an unproven company? And if a startup goes bust, its founder is often out of investors. Who among the three Fs is going in for round two?
This is what entrepreneurs here are faced with: real risks, an unforgiving climate, a fear of being seen as a whiner and a lot of people who think they’re nuts for doing this in the first place. So instead of failure or hardship, they talk about the only thing that feels safe: success.
This past March, Lexi Novitske sat down in Lagos to meet with the founder of a tech company. She’s an American-born investor who now lives in the Nigerian megacity, and is the principal investment officer for Singularity Investments Africa. This company interested her, but she was concerned. It buys data from telecom companies and sells it to consumers, which means that it’s at the mercy of the telecom companies’ prices. So when Novitske met with the founder, she asked him how he planned to protect himself from this risk.
“He completely avoided the thought that it’s a risk,” she says. “He’d give me arguments as to why I’m wrong. I said, ‘I think you need to take a better look at the risks and understanding them. Because if you can’t talk about inherent risks, that scares me away as an investor.’”
“OK, OK, I’ll think about that more,” he said, but she didn’t get the sense that he would. She didn’t invest. By not acknowledging a potential failure, that entrepreneur created a real one.
To be fair, Novitske says, this problem isn’t entirely African. Young entrepreneurs across the world are tempted to paper over their risks. But the culture clash in that moment is becoming increasingly common, as American and European investors enter Africa. These people are used to open dialogues; they want founders who speak candidly.
To build the relationships they need, investors are uncovering ways to broach the subject. Matt and Laura Davis spend a lot of time thinking about this. They’re American partners in Renew, an international investment firm, and they moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, five years ago to invest in high-growth local companies. “What I have found helpful is for us to first take responsibility for misunderstandings and mistakes,” Matt says, “like for example, if I say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry; I made a mistake,’ you can see in their face immediately -- like, Wow, that guy just admitted he was wrong, and did it sincerely. Is that how it works?”
The Davises used this tactic recently when a founder they invested in went astray. He had taken out a risky bank loan right after he’d told them that he wouldn’t. It was a panic move. But now he’d violated their trust and wouldn’t admit that he was at fault. “My blood started boiling,” Matt says. But he knew that any accusations of wrongdoing would only make the situation tenser.
So, what to do instead? The Davises arranged a dinner with the founder and his wife. After some small talk, Matt described in emotional detail how much he believed in this company and how hurt his feelings were by the founder’s decision. “We said, ‘Look, we know this is challenging, we know these are scary times,’” Matt says. “‘But right now, this is the true test of a leader, and the true test of our relationship -- when the strength of our company really shows.’” The founder softened and apologized. “The way he responded was just beautiful,” Matt says. By being open first, Matt had created an opportunity. Their relationship was strengthened because of it.
It’s been nearly a year since Sheriff Shittu wrote that 12 Years a Hustler, Time to Go Home story. And in that time, Njoku, the iRoko founder, has come to think differently about it. Shittu had likely boasted because he thought that was best for his company, and nobody had shown him a reason to do otherwise. “The thing is, society doesn’t reward honesty,” Njoku says now. “If society rewards honesty, then you’re honest. It comes down to incentives.”
This is a valuable way to think about failure, because it helps the subject fit neatly into how entrepreneurs think. We’re results-driven people. We have only so much time, effort and resources, and we want to know how best to spend them. So where are the incentives here? What’s the reward for talking about failure?
That’s easy: success, sanity and fellowship.
Entrepreneurs interviewed for this story tended to split into two camps: They either talked about failure, or they didn’t. And the ones who did talk openly had one thing in common: a robust network.
Those networks can come in all forms. Five years ago, when Madey Adeboye opened her business, a health food café in Lagos called Green & Grill House, she was going at it alone and often felt crazy. After two years, she went to business school in Lagos -- and met a group of people just like her, who shared their troubles and challenges. With their guidance, she expanded her business. Today, 26 of them are regularly in touch on WhatsApp, workshopping problems and failures as a group.
For Djiby Sall, who moved from Senegal to Columbus, Ohio, in 2004, when he was 12, that network is small. He runs a nonprofit in Columbus called Africana Youth Representatives and a poultry business in Senegal, and his gut tells him not to acknowledge his failures to other people. But recently, he’s developed a mentorship relationship with a young entrepreneur who lives a few minutes from his home. Twice a week, they’ll sit down so Sall can give him advice. And something happened that’s surprised him. “I talk about the failures with him,” Sall says, “because it can help him grow as an entrepreneur.”
Once that conversation gets going, no matter how it gets going, entrepreneurs say they begin to see their work in an entirely new light.
That’s how it happened for Senyo, of the Impact Hub in Ghana. In late 2012, he built a company that helped Ghanaians abroad invest in companies back home. Barclays and the Rockefeller Foundation pitched in, and when he launched with an event on the 34th floor of the Barclays building in Manhattan, it kicked off a long tail of glowing press. Those stories continued, even as, secretly, it turned out his company’s launch hadn’t gone well. The model just didn’t seem to work, and he was burning through cash. “I was this token African wonder kid, but my project was falling apart,” he says. “I didn’t have the courage at the time to talk to anyone about it. It wasn’t even a possibility.”
Instead, he lost weight. He felt unwell. Peers could tell that something was wrong, but nobody pressed. “It wasn’t until late into panic mode that I had the courage to talk about it with my parents, my girlfriend at the time and my business partner,” he says. They were all supportive. The business ultimately collapsed, and he’s still paying off its debt, but he was going to be OK. What mattered, he realized, was knowing that he didn’t have to do this alone. “Failure changed my perspective on success,” he says. “It’s not just about the success or failure of the thing -- it’s that you are doing something. Each step of the way is a win.”
A week after Williams was hit by that bus in Johannesburg, she developed a kidney stone and was in excruciating pain. “When you’re lying alone on your bathroom floor, with nobody to support you, then you know you need a change,” she says.
She decided to take a three-month break; Impact Hub, the incubator she was running, had shut its doors. She thought she’d feel refreshed afterward, but as her break wound down, she was in a restaurant with a colleague and burst into tears. “I need more time,” she kept repeating. At a loss for what to do, she took to Facebook and announced that she was burned out. The comments rolled in -- people commiserating, sharing their own failure stories and sending private messages thanking her for giving them “permission” to talk about it. The response gave her a sense of purpose -- to help people avoid her mistakes.
She thought back to a year prior, to a trip to Mexico for the global Impact Hub conference. She’d attended an event there called Fuckup Nights, in which a handful of her conference colleagues got on stage to tell the crowd how they screwed up. Then there was a Q&A and an evening of networking. “I was stunned at the level of honesty,” she says. “This was absolutely new to me.”
For perhaps just that reason, these events have become popular exports. Fuckup Nights began in Mexico City and are now in dozens of cities around the world, including six in Africa. FailCon began in San Francisco but was canceled there in 2014; its founders felt it was no longer necessary because failure had been practically fetishized by then. Now it’s being exported to cities that need it more.
Williams decided to bring Fuckup Nights to Johannesburg. She originally called it “Stuff Up Night” to mitigate any conservative backlash, but the Fuckup Nights organizers eventually convinced her to join their fold. The event was cathartic, and it helped her move past her own failures. She recently relaunched Impact Hub Johannesburg, which is now rapidly signing up new members.
She also keeps hosting the Fuckup Nights. “I keep saying we need to talk about failure so that people know it is OK, and it is part of the process of innovation and pioneering,” she says. And this has put her in a unique role. She needs presenters for each event, which means she’s become a failure hound -- calling local entrepreneurs and pushing them to do what she once was unable to, and what so many entrepreneurs around the world must do more of. She wants them to open up.
“It’s like, Oh no, I got the call from Lesley! I’m like the grim reaper,” she says with a laugh. “Next, I’m thinking of starting Entrepreneurs Anonymous.”