MONCTON – “I’m a firm believer that failure drives success. Without failure you cannot have success,” says Roger Attlee, who runs brand and design agency Punch Branding. Attlee was one of the speakers at Venn Innovation’s Founders Cafe last week, which explored the theme ‘lessons of failure.’
Vanessa Paesani, co-founder of impact investment measurement platform RIDDL, and Fred Laforge, founder of Farmers’ Truck, which now designs and sells mobile market trucks, also shared what they’ve learned from past failures at the event. Here are the five lessons we took home:
1) Know Yourself
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, the ways you express yourself, and your risk tolerance levels can help you decide on what steps are best to take with your business.
“I think that we all have different drivers and I think it’s important to get to know yourself as best as you can so that you can figure out what’s going to work for you. Then the better you know yourself, the more you realize what your gaps are and then you can find the people that don’t have those gaps… then you can really find the people that compliment you,” Paesani said.
Along their own entrepreneurial journeys, both Paesani and Laforge got to know themselves better.
Paesani found out she can be impatient, but she’s also a planner.
“I realized I’m never going to fully dive into entrepreneurship unless I built myself a really solid cushion. And I want to know how long that cushion’s going last, and what my runway is, and what it allows me to do,” she said.
“I learned that I’m not good at writing. I ran a marketing agency, you have to write a lot of copy. Embrace that you’re not good at everything,” said Laforge, who used to run marketing agency Smithy’s Creative Group.
2) Put It Down On Paper
Whether it’s your vision, mission, business plan, goals or commitment with your business partner – all three agree that you’ve got to write it down.
Attlee learned that the hard way. When he started a web-based business with four of his other colleagues – all creative minded, passionate and energetic people, it didn’t end well because people weren’t on the same page.
“We were never on board…nobody put down a business plan in place. So the project had five different ideas in five different people’s heads,” he said. “If [the vision] was defined properly, if somebody had managed our egos properly, we would have come out stronger.”
“You have to know what you’re getting into. Put it down on paper…the first most important thing if you have an idea is to lay it down on paper so everybody can transparently see your idea and value-add,” he said.
Attlee, who worked at top advertising agency DDB in Dubai for 20 years before he started his own business, said one of the things he learned from being a service provider was that many entrepreneurs want to do everything themselves.
“You kind of realize that you can be an entrepreneur, you can have a great idea, and you want to do it all alone…you want to keep it all to yourself because you feel that if you give it out to someone, then you’re going to lose control of it,” he said.
But keeping everything to yourself isn’t always the best way forward. Someone who’s not great at doing finances or doesn’t have an eye for design should outsource those tasks, Attlee said.
“Give it to a specialist who can help you,” he said. “I’ve tried outsourcing many times and…most often it’s a big failure. Do I stop outsourcing? No, because it solves a lot of your problems. So you keep doing it…it’s going to work out eventually.”
Outsourcing tasks is also key when you want to scale up your business, Paesani said. When she was building Amplify: East, a web platform to showcase outstanding women in Atlantic Canada, she did so in a way that the work can be done by someone else when she can’t.
Now that she’s investing in real estate and starting an Airbnb management business, she outsourced the task of building IKEA furniture and is thinking of other parts of the business she can outsource.
“I come from a blue-collar background where there’s a pride in doing everything yourself, but you can’t do that when you’re trying to scale a business,” said Paesani, who also worked as a change management consultant in the past.
Laforge learned the need to outsource the hard way when he tried to scale up and sell his marketing agency, Smithy Creative Group.
“I found out that I built the agency around what I could deliver. And I’m a good designer and I work fast, but the next thing you know, I can’t scale up the business because all my clients are used to how I do business…I couldn’t find another Fred….the problem was not trying to find someone, the problem was I built a business around something that was hard to replicate,” he said.
“Maybe you’re more of an overachiever…but you can’t use that as a benchmark. You have to build a business that scales so you have to go with the common denominator.”
4) Money Is An Important Tool, So Manage It Well
Ever the planner, Paesani realized early that managing money for the future is important, whether that’s for personal life or business. Making sure employees get paid on time is key for companies, she said.
So when she stepped into a project that showed signs of financial troubles, she suggested building a rainy day fund.
“You have to know how to manage money and how to see money in different places and take advantage of different opportunities. Because at the end of the day, if you want whatever it is that you want to succeed, money is a tool. I’m not saying money has to be the be all end all, but cash is oxygen for whatever you’re trying to do,” she said.
5) Fall In Love With The Problem And See The Silver Lining In Failure
Laforge has had to pivot the Farmers’ Truck from selling produce from local farms through a truck to now selling the trucks themselves.
He had to close the business for a while, let go of employees, learning that selling produce in a truck was a seasonal business that made a lot of money for a short period of time, but then struggled for the rest of the year. But the core problem he was trying to solve still bugged him. He wants to make food more accessible in so-called food deserts across North America.
“That’s the problem we’re trying to fix and there are 100 million solutions. I’ll throw one in the wall until it sticks but at the end what I’m in love with is the problem,” he said.
With this perspective, when a phone call came from Pennsylvania from an organization that wanted to buy the truck he was selling produce from because that was the “best design” they’d seen, Laforge saw another opportunity. Looking for silver linings also helps him go through financial stresses.
“My personality is always looking for that opportunity even though everything looks dark…I’ve been working on selling trucks for about a year now…we sold our first truck last week,” he said.
He shared some wisdom from his father, a farmer.
“If you go bankrupt – it’s a dirty word, but you’re not dead. You can still go to work. You still have your skillset, you’re still someone, you still can breathe, you get to live, you get to taste, you get to see things,” he said. “Think about the worst-case scenario [of your business], then be at peace with it.”
Attlee also has reaped success from a moment of failure. When a large client’s request didn’t get the right amount of attention because there was no dollar value attached, he stepped in when that turned into a disaster. The client appreciated that so much and encouraged him to start his own agency. They remain his client until today.
“It was one incident that changed a life. So if an opportunity comes for you, don’t think twice. Just go for it, even if this opportunity was for zero dollars,” he said.