Failing Forward

I failed! The very last words any entrepreneur wants to admit.

Success is so coveted that the fear of failure and semblance of it scares people into underachieving. Everyone launching a startup wants to be the next Bezos or Zuckerberg, but they are afraid to take any risks, despite the opportunities therein, all because of the chance of failing. This is common in Nigeria, and it has prevented many individuals and businesses from breaking the glass ceiling they created themselves.

Jason Njoku, founder of iROKO TV re-echoes these thoughts on his blog: In Africa, failure is a peculiar thing. It essentially somehow manages to not exist. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t pour scorn on it. We do worse. We barely acknowledge it. We quietly find ways to bury it. We dress her up for her to appear successful. But exist, it does. I am a big fan of embracing my failures. Where possible, publicly.

 Embrace Failure

This does not mean you should actively look for chances to fail, nor does it mean that an entrepreneur should not try to reduce his or her business risk. It is, however, important for you to realize that some experiments will fail; customers may not like the product as expected; and the service may not be a right fit for the market. With such realization, necessary changes can be made, that could ultimately lead to your success.

Jack Ma, Chairman of the multibillion-dollar Alibaba Group, is probably the poster-boy of the entrepreneurial rags-to-riches story. This dogged “giant” wears failure on his sleeves. He tells his staff and anyone willing to hear, his failure stories, because he believes people learn more from failure than they do from success. From someone who was rejected from Harvard 10 times, rejected from KFC, and failed to raise $5m in venture capital funding when he started Alibaba, but did not give up, he should know what he is saying. To Jack, “You have to get used to failure”.

This is very true. Failure comes in all shapes and sizes, but what is important is that it is acknowledged. Sometimes, failure may not be as a result of poor products or even tough economic conditions. Failure could simply stem from behavioral lapses.

 Make a change

The darling of Silicon Valley and every inspirational book today, Steve Jobs, was well-known for his intense perfectionism and the often adverse effects it had on those working for his company. Jobs would need final approval on every single detail of the early Macintosh computers, fire employees without hesitation for not immediately conforming to his design aesthetics, and scrap nearly-finished projects that did not meet his design standards. Actions like these led to the team at Apple taking almost 3 years developing the original Mac. This demeanor and an internal power struggle led to his ousting from a company he co-founded. It was an incredible personal failure. Though he returned 3 years later during one of the worst periods of the company and was able to turn it into the behemoth it is, he did so, by changing his leadership style- he tempered obsession with control.

In a 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he said:I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It forced me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. Jobs’ not only embraced failure, he went the extra mile to make a change, and that was the turning point of his career at Apple. It is one thing to know that things are going wrong in the business, but asking why the experiment or marketing campaign is failing and making the necessary changes, are what would lead you to becoming a better leader. Failure is never a good feeling, and recognizing that all that time and money invested into a project was all a waste could eat you up inside. However, it is vital you take the extra step to find out what is wrong and make the change. Is the product too large? Make it smaller. Are your services too numerous and you can’t get any traction from all? Focus on one and move forward from there, or if need be, pivot.


The change you make is only as valuable as the effort you put into it. Anyone that has conducted business in Nigeria would tell you the value of persistence. The ability to keep forging ahead despite setbacks is the hallmark of a truly great entrepreneur. In fact, the alterations made may not always have instantaneous effects, but there would be signs. The truth is: There will be challenges; there will be dark days; but if you prepare for them, and go the extra mile of heeding the lessons of failure, success would be just around the corner. You only fail when you stop trying. Experiments may fail. Decisions may end up losing the business a lot of money, but as mentioned earlier, knowing what to learn from those mistakes and keep pushing forward are vital to every business’s growth.

When African entrepreneurs think of Jason Njoku, they think of the founder of a multi-million-dollar video-streaming enterprise. What they do not recognize was that, iROKO was almost one of Jason’s well-documented failures. Pre-iROKO, he founded 11 startups and made about 13 angel investments with his investment branch, SPARK, almost all of which failed. In fact, one year after co-founding the platform, he had invested $50,000 into the business but in over 14 months, had generated less than $1,000. In his words, “…the revenue growth was there but there was no data to prove it”. After convincing his co-founder, Bastian Gotter, to invest $100,000 more, 6 months later, they were making $50,000 per month, $35,000 of which was gross profit.

In the process of starting and operating the business, as mentioned before, it is important to note that your strategy, campaign, product quirk or even, the business itself may fail. What you should remember to do, however, is to first embrace the failure. If you can’t acknowledge that you went wrong, you won’t ponder on where you went wrong. The next step is to make corrections. Once you have realized the pain-points in your business, tweak them, alter them. Lastly, you need to persevere. You need to push hard to make the desired change a success.

Toyin Subair of the now-defunct HiTV, when trying to admonish entrepreneurs after explaining why his company failed, wrote: “Whatever you do, live forward”. In this case, fail forward. If your business is failing, follow the steps listed above and fail forward to achieve your desired goals.

1 comment(s)

  • Mgbakogu Cynthia

    I'd say the difference between an entrepreneur and the average person is the ability to take that risk/leap even when it is frightening. A lot of people have great ideas but are too afraid to follow through. Nice one.