Teen Entrepreneurs Learn to Embrace Failure. Can Adults?

Grownup founders can learn plenty from their teenage counterparts.
Teen Entrepreneurs Learn to Embrace Failure. Can Adults?
Image credit: Courtesy of WIT | Whatever It Takes
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4 min read

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Koby Wheeler has launched and crashed three businesses. But he’s not embarrassed by any of it. “It gives me more confidence,” he says, “because I have those experiences. I know to ask better questions, I know to trust my gut, and I have a more long-term way of thinking.”

It’s a good perspective to have at any age -- and in Wheeler’s case, he’s starting young. He’s a freshman at the University of Texas at Dallas. His first three businesses failed while he was in high school. And he attributes his thick skin to a program he completed prior to graduation: It’s called Whatever It Takes (WIT), a San Diego–based program that helps high schoolers ideate and launch businesses for college credit, and it puts a heavy emphasis on learning to celebrate their failures.

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WIT may be a youth program, but it serves as an example of something important: Risk tolerance can be taught. That’s why its founder, Sarah Hernholm, is now hired by companies across the country to give seminars to employees and encourage them to give WIT’s way of thinking a try. Imagine it -- a roomful of adult professionals, running through a program originally designed for kids. And it’s just as useful to each generation.

To Hernholm, the starting line is simple: Most kids -- and adults! -- are taught that there’s a “right” answer to everything. But entrepreneurship is different. “There’s never a right answer,” she says. “It’s a mindset we have to unwrap and discard.”

Instead, she urges people to look at their life and work as a series of ever-changing choices. Failure doesn’t eliminate choices -- it just creates new ones. You could choose to give up after a failure or choose to learn from it and then put that lesson into action. “Embracing your failures is really just about implementing radical transparency and ownership in your life,” says Hernholm. “It’s tough but powerful to activate that mindset and realize that you have choices.” 

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She offers an example from her own work at WIT. She wanted to develop an online platform that would be like a LinkedIn for teenagers, but she wasn’t entirely sure how it would work or if people would want it. Choices suddenly sprang up in front of her: She could ask for help, or barrel through to create her own version of a finished product. Hernholm chose the former. “The minute I had this idea, I went right to our students -- the end users -- and asked them what they thought. Some said, ‘Why would I want that at all?’ Others asked for specific features,” she says. “But I didn’t hide from negative feedback and try to do it on my own. We workshopped it, and now we’re building something better together.”

When students and adults run through exercises like this, they start to see how freeing that can be. When there’s no right or wrong option, they’re free to experiment, fail, and try anew. That’s what really appealed to Griffin Clark, a high school senior and WIT participant who’s developing a smartphone-powered laptop. He’s helped local entrepreneurs before, but now he’s pouring his own money into his project -- and he has more of it than the typical 17-year-old, thanks to some smart Bitcoin investments that yielded him $10,000 to work with.

Related: 7 Things Teenagers Can Teach You About Social Media Success

“Having money in the game changes things. I’m risking everything I have on this idea,” he says. But he sees it as a worthy risk, regardless of whether this particular project succeeds. “I’ve never been good with authority, and I’ll never be able to work a normal job,” he says. “I need the freedom and room to do my own thing. So these aren’t skills for a business. This is about how I’ll build and live my life.”

It’s a choice he’s making now.


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