Avoiding the Pain of Failing Startups – 9 Lessons Learned from My Ups and Downs

by / ⠀Startup Advice / January 11, 2013

If you look at my photo, you’ll know straight away that I am not an Under 30 CEO. I’m a highly successful businessman with profound lessons to share with those who want to succeed as entrepreneurs. I now have four decades of experience as a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, and venture capitalist. I have experienced the highs and lows of business from the very first company I started to my current ambition. Having launched 10 companies since college, I have tasted both success and failure. I have the scars on my back to prove it. I’ve now made it my life goal to help others hasten their path to high-flying success and to avoid the pain of failure.

My first venture was a home run. I made lots of money and recognized immediately that I am an entrepreneur. I knew back then that I could never be a corporate executive. It just isn’t me.

The next four companies I launched were losers. I lost my shirt with each endeavor. I kept a positive attitude by noting that failure could be valuable to me if I learned something powerful and vital from each situation. Later, as a married man with six children, I worked a regular paying day job to pay the bills. I engaged in entrepreneurship at night and on the weekends. As a new enterprise showed promise, I quit my day jobs to pursue my dreams and passions full time.

My journey has been thrilling and fulfilling. Every moment, good and bad, was worth it. What I took away from these many experiences has stayed with me throughout the years. It’s now my turn to share what I have learned with others who want to start and grow their businesses. Here are nine of the most helpful lessons I learned:

# 1 Success Requires Risks

Take the risk but be smart about it. Starting a business takes a leap of faith. There is this anxious moment, when entrepreneurs take a step into the unknown hoping that they will survive and prosper. The key is to reduce the major and potentially catastrophic risks before the launch. In my Forbes.com column this summer, “Starting a Company: Take the Risk”, I noted research from hundreds of thousands of startup firms from a dozen different industries showing that more than half of all businesses will fail within their first three years of existence. Of those that remain, about one third will make a profit, another third will break even, and the balance will continue to lose money. HOWEVER, on a positive note, that means that one third of those companies will be PROFITABLE. If you don’t take the risk, how will you know if you’ll be the one who succeeds?

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#2 Do Your Homework

Within the last few years, many of you have been – or are still – finishing your degrees. You know how to research. You know how to get things done. Apply this to your new business ideas. Successful entrepreneurs know the market. They know their customers. They know their competitors. They also know if they have a product or solution that’s viable. Don’t launch without doing your homework first! Or if you’re already launched but are struggling, do some more homework. I wish I’d learned this lesson before starting the first four companies that failed.

#3 Find a mentor

The late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, who passed away in 2012, was a terrific teacher and a personal mentor of mine from my college days. Having had the privilege of studying with Covey, most of my business philosophy is centered on his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Ray Noorda of Novell was another mentor of mine. From him, I learned that cash in a business is critical to success. “Cash is king,” he would say. “Make sure you have plenty and don’t waste it.”

Find your own mentor. Listen to them. Draw from their experiences, skills, and substantial network to help guide you. Learn what has worked for them and what lessons they have learned from their experiences so you don’t make the same mistakes. In most cases, they themselves have been taught by other luminaries and are delighted to “pay it forward.” Continue to enlist your mentor (or mentors) on a regular basis for instruction and counsel. Their help will be invaluable.

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#4 Be Teachable

On a related note, you must be open to learning. You may feel as if you know exactly what you need to do to launch and grow your business, but there’s always a different and potentially better way of which you might not yet be aware. Being willing and eager to learn from your mentors, business partners, or even seasoned employees who have been around the block a few times will help you grow from a good to an exceptional leader.

#5 Set Goals – and then Follow Them

Establish highly defined long- and short-term goals (both strategic and financial) for your business in an organized, professional business plan. Then stick to these objectives as closely as possible and recognize that the benefits of accomplishing them dramatically outweigh whatever negative situations you encounter. However, have a plan B. Be flexible in how you reach the goals. You never know when you’ll have to change directions. I have pivoted numerous times in my career.

#6 Focus, Focus, Focus

Entrepreneurs achieve greatness by avoiding any situations that might distract them. As such, you must constantly and tightly fix your vision on the most important components of your enterprises, including customer needs, solutions that meet those needs, quality employees, having sufficient financial resources, etc.

#7 Form Partnerships

Don’t try to do it all on your own. At the beginning – or even if you’re more fully established – consider the types of companies that have synergistic products and services that could leverage your possibilities. Partnerships are based upon a win-win for both parties. Determine what needs partners have and become a solution for them. In turn, let them know your issues. Good partners will provide the solutions you seek.

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#8 Don’t Give Up … or Overly Panic

Successful business leaders don’t give up when adversity strikes. They find the ways and means to carry on, even if it’s by starting over. When things feel at their worst, take a deep breath and remember that tomorrow is another day. Only after you’ve considered every alternative to closing shop – talking to your mentors, refocusing, doing more homework, seeking additional funding – should you ever follow that route.

#9 Try and Try Again

If your business fails, get right back on the horse and ride again. Consider the lessons you learned – which might be quite similar to my own – and make the necessary improvements to ride one more time.

As a determined CEO, I am sure you have undoubtedly experienced the highs and lows of your own endeavors. What are some of the lessons you have already learned that you think will be valuable in your career? You can reach me at @AskAlanEHall or via www.AlanEHall.com. I welcome your thoughts.

Alan E. Hall is an entrepreneur, angel investor, venture capitalist, author and philanthropist with 40 years of business experience as a CEO. He has launched 10 companies. Four were failures. MarketStar, Island Park Investments and Mercato Partners are home runs. He currently has 60 investments in emerging start up firms. He knows how to launch, grow and sell a business. He is also the founder of Grow America, an organization dedicated to helping business builders nationwide.

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on Under30CEO.com, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.


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