Entrepreneurs do fail and talking about it makes it more acceptable

Originally featured on Fresh Business Thinking

Simon Burton is an entrepreneur in media, events, PR, sport and social media. He is an inspirational public speaker, and a judge at this year’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards and yet, he says, it’s his failures that have made him a success.

“I often say that I have launched and sold three trade shows, but that is a lie” says Simon. “I have launched ten trade shows and I messed up seven of them. And I’ve sold three.

“I learned more from the seven that failed than the three that succeeded. Entrepreneurs get that. That resonates, but if you talk to people in big business articulating that idea, they get upset, they say ‘you shouldn’t be admitting failure,’ but this is part of a story. Entrepreneurs have stories and the telling of those stories is inspirational for others. Entrepreneurs do fail and talking about it makes it more acceptable.”

The real point about failure is that it is part of the evolutionary process.  In nature, evolution works by mutation, and the vast majority of those mutations are disasters for the poor little creatures concerned, but the odd successes create the rich tapestry of life. Evolution is the most innovative force we know of, yet without failure it would be nothing, we might still be living in a primordial soup, single celled organisms.

When he talks about failure, Simon was simply telling a truth, albeit one that many in business don’t like to admit to.

Then again, Simon reckons he sees a cultural shift, a new way of thinking and doing, which is creating a more entrepreneurial mindset. “Entrepreneurs self-propagate,” and are saying “I would like to be in control of my own life and my own destiny, it is ok to do that.”

Maybe that’s why the UK is a more entrepreneurial place these days. “We have seen an emergence of entrepreneurial spirit amongst individuals.” He says even big business has got it, they are “interested in what entrepreneurialism means and how it can impact on them. UK business has taken a much more proactive and imaginative view of entrepreneurs in recent years.”

Alas, Simon does not feel that you can say the same for government: “I think that the UK government remains moribund, aligned and ineffective to entrepreneurs and what they mean and that is a great shame.”

There is also a gap between reality and how the public perceives entrepreneurs, “that is reflected in a show that I absolutely loathe called The Apprentice, it’s horrific in its inaccuracy of what business really is. It’s just feeding the celebrity culture. But it does help raise the profile of business as more than work so it’s a double edge sword.”

Maybe we need to rewind a bit. What is an entrepreneur?

Simon says that “start-ups, small business, and entrepreneurs are not interchangeable,” and “government really doesn’t understand the differences between those things.

“A start-up is a good thing, but if I started up a window cleaning business it does not make me an entrepreneur. You have got to do something different to be an entrepreneur.”

Okay, so entrepreneurs have to do something different, they have to disrupt in some way.  But what advice would you give to someone with a bold new idea, trying to change the world?

“No matter how imaginative, clever or insightful your idea is,” he says “try to give yourself clear structures at the start around who you are and how you articulate what you do. This is a constant process of refining and polishing the idea, but you must put up some solid structures. Make sure that you set up a limited company properly and you have the correct shareholders agreements in place. Do the boring stuff and when you are down the line and the idea doesn’t look anything like it did at the beginning, then the foundations are solid.”


But then Simon is a communicator, an inspirational public speaker. Given that, it is not surprising to hear him add: “Tell your story! Dragon’s Den shows us that your narrative is vital, if you cannot tell your story, you can’t take your business anywhere.”

But what makes a successful entrepreneur? What is their single most important quality?

“They come in a thousand shapes and sizes and the idea that there is a single characteristic that defines them, is an anathema to me.”

And then Simon says something rather important. “Not everyone has it them to be a successful entrepreneur, but everyone may have it in them. Some people might only discover that they have it in them when the circumstances present themselves.”

So, it may be a case of cometh the hour, cometh the entrepreneur.

The UK is indeed emerging an entrepreneurial success story – but more needs to be done, and one way to achieve this is to shine the media spotlight on entrepreneurs, their challenges, their failures and of course their successes.