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Book Review: Progress That Comes With Failure

The author identifies the specific mistakes she made in her business and rues the fact that often the realisation came too late

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It is a well-known maxim that 90 per cent of all startups fail. Failure is important because it is at the heart of entrepreneurial success. Thomas Edison, who failed a thousand times at inventing the light bulb before succeeding, said “I didn’t fail a thousand times. The light bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.”

The path to startup success, too, is paved with many mis-steps. However, more gets written about success than failure because it is more glamorous and comforting to read about. There is also a survivorship bias where shining successes are more visible than the anonymous struggles of failed businesses. Analysis of startups is often focused on the end result, whether they failed or succeeded, and not on the process, which is always a combination of failing and succeeding. This focus results in definitive laundry lists of things to do or not to do for achieving success and avoiding failure. Yet, handling failure is important to achieving success. Laundry lists can provide useful but incomplete advice to entrepreneurs that they must, among other things, focus on their niche, be passionate, deliver great quality and believe in themselves. However, it is this self-belief that gets severely tested as entrepreneurs struggle through a journey that starts with them achieving perfection in presentation, moves rapidly to them seeing their business soaring on spreadsheets, and often ends up with them crashing into cash flow statements that bleed red.

In Freedom to Fail, Shabnam Aggarwal reflects on her experience of failure. It is a first person account of an entrepreneur who comes to India from the US, turns her passion into a business and then plunges headfirst into the chaos and nerve-racking uncertainty of trying to succeed in India.

This is an intensely personal story of Aggarwal’s journey from the idea bulb that pops up in her head to the time she decides to turn the lights off at Klever Kid, a marketplace for booking after-school activities. She provides front row seats to observe her doubts, her fears, her joys and her embarrassments, and weaves in vignettes of her personal life that provide an insight into her motivations and personality. The founder who appears calm and confident on the outside can be often be a seething mass of conflicting emotions and insecurities inside. This underscores the need for founders to focus on their mental and physical wellbeing and to ensure that they have the emotional support necessary to keep going as adversity piles up.

In a writing style that is breezy and humorous, the author describes her experiences of everyday reality that any entrepreneur will identify with. When you are driven by your vision of creating something larger than yourself, mundane decisions like choosing what to wear to an investor pitch or choosing office furniture appear momentous.

Most entrepreneurs start alone and quickly become used to handling everything on their own. It is only when they cross the agonising stage of convincing someone to invest in the business that the larger existential issues start to overwhelm founders and they need a team to step in. Early in her journey, Aggarwal is faced with the choice of accepting unfavourable investment terms or closing down her business. This is followed at regular intervals with challenges like key employees leaving, customers not emptying out their pockets as projected and investors running out of patience. At every setback, she tries to change tactics and soldier on. However, she is soon back to staring at financial statements and wondering how much longer the business has. One of the first things an entrepreneur learns is how to count down to Doomsday.  

The author identifies the specific mistakes she made in her business and rues the fact that often the realisation came too late. In any case, since two business journeys are rarely similar, each entrepreneur will end up learning her own business lessons from her failures. However, by sensitising themselves to what failure feels like, aspiring founders, especially those who have had early successes in academic life and corporate careers, may be able to handle themselves and their interactions with stakeholders better.

For most budding entrepreneurs, this book can be a flight simulator in which to experience the emotions triggered by watching their businesses falling apart and go crashing to the ground. There is also a lesson here about having realistic expectations and contingency planning.  

Startup journeys are too complex to fit into neat lists. Sure, you must focus on a niche but how do you find it? Often, you stumble upon it. It’s here that failing fast can help. If you can recover quickly and try something different then that failure has been worth the pain. To do that, you need support from friends, family and investors. In other words, you need the freedom to fail.

Albert Einstein said that “failure is success in progress”. An entrepreneur’s life sees more failure than success. You win if you can pick yourself up just one last time after you are thrown down.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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book review magazine 22 december 2019

Mohit Charnalia

The writer is Director & Head of Risk, Billionloans Financial Services

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