5 screw-ups for a start-up success

As Richard Branson once said; "Failure is one of the secrets of business success." Mistakes are also a fact of business life, and all entrepreneurs make them.  At best they cause embarrassment; at worst they send you back to the drawing board, but the one good thing about screwing up is that you learn to do it better next time.

For a journalist, it's all about finding the right words. One of my most memorable assignments as a rookie was flying to Basel in Switzerland to interview the late Dr Ernst Schneider, chairman of Oettinger Davidoff, for a business magazine. I spent the day, touring the famous Davidoff cigar factory, learning about the various cigars within the line; Numbers 1, 2, 3, etc, and smoking a Davidoff cigar with the great man himself.

A Laguito No. 2, a panatela, was Schneider’s own personal preference and he admitted that he wouldn’t contemplate starting work until he’d lit one up.

It was a sharp-eyed sub editor working on my copy who pointed out that the phrase “he wouldn't start work until he'd had a number two" conveyed a somewhat different meaning. I learned to be a more diligent proof reader. 

Here are five screw ups that have provided valuable business lessons for successful entrepreneurs. 

1. Going for short term commercial gain

Hems de Winter, CEO de Winter PR. 

"I spent years worrying about money, and where the next contract might come from, and would sit in front of potential clients thinking to myself 'What can I do or say that will persuade this bloke to give me their business?' It was always about going for the money."

"But thanks to a chance encounter, I met a guy who became my mentor and made me realise that the way to growth and sustained business success, and fulfilment for the team is to set out with the intention of helping individuals and their businesses rather than making money out of their businesses. Taking that approach, and working only with those people, employees and clients, who share your values is what generates the money."

2. Hiring in a rush

Ry Morgan, founder of PleaseCycle

"Hiring for character, rather than competence, is something I've learnt the hard way. A couple of hires that I made early on were very rushed because we needed extra hands, but in hindsight it actually cost the businesses more in time and resource by bringing in the wrong people.

Nowadays the emphasis is on personality and culture fit - we go for a beer with every potential hire - and it has done the trick, with the last three hires being a perfect fit."

3. Messing up a major media opportunity

Linda Cheung CEO of Cube Social

"For my first BBC appearance, with Phil Gayle on Radio Berkshire, I'd prepared three key points I wanted to convey my business....and I failed spectacularly on all three.

 In the studio I struggled to make eye contact with Phil with a large microphone on a hinged arm between us, 

I was thrown by the fact that the questions Phil asked while off-air, which I took as an opportunity to prepare, were not the same questions he asked when we were live.

"I've since learned not to be distracted by a strange environment, and to be better prepared. For a live interview I ask for a list of questions ahead of the interview, and if it's recorded, I always ask to remake a point if I'm not happy with what I’ve said."

4. Asking the wrong questions

Mike Peates, founder of Owowchocolates

"As an employee I came up with the idea of helping small independent schools set up their own DD collection schemes that I would administer for a fee. As I already worked in this industry, I touted the idea among my clients and got some positive feedback. So I quit my job, and set up the business. Only, when it came to selling the product - to the same schools who'd given the positive feedback - there was no response. It soon became clear this was not going to work and I ditched the idea, having spent money on setting up the business, a website and marketing materials.

"I learned that you should run your new idea by someone in business who will really scrutinise your plans and give honest feedback. And if you do approach interested parties direct, be robust with your questions, and ask 'What would make you buy this today and at what price?'

5. Trying to become 'too big' too quickly. 

Rafael Dos Santos, founder of Londonup.com 

"I almost took my flat sharing business into bankruptcy because I tried to grow too fast. I didn't have the right professionals in place, or the right systems and it ended up in a mess. It has taken almost two years to get things back in place and my finances back to normal. I learned to take one step at a time, have the right people doing the right job and give them the right tools to work - that is the only way to develop and grow your company.”

Alright, fess up. 

What mistakes have you made in your time in business?
And how did you learn from them?


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