Living Entrepreneurship Blog / Babson Entrepreneurs

Ups, Downs, and Lessons: How 2 Survive from Failure

Is failure a f-word?

We say no – As tough as it can be, there are opportunities that come along with failure. Moderated by Mary Gale, Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship, a panel of Babson alumni and professors – Emily Lagasse MBA’15, Fedwell Pet Foods and Petwell Supply; Kenneth (K.J.) Neilson MBA’11, entrepreneur; Ian So ’08, Chicken and Rice Guys; and Professor Yasu Yamakawa, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship – shared their perspectives and insights from their own experiences in How 2 Survive from Failure.

As K.J. Neilson articulately described, failure in entrepreneurship can be an intensely personal experience. When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island of St. Thomas in 2017, the hydroponic farming business that he owned with his wife, Kate ’07, was devastated. He deeply internalized this loss and blamed himself: “I blame myself that a hurricane was able to pick up a freight container and shift it forty feet onto its side. I blame myself for not somehow figuring out a way to anchor it to the ground. I blame myself for not someway figuring out a way to get fresh water to my plants when nobody had fresh water, when the Navy was helicoptering in fresh water to the people who needed it most.”

What the panel ultimately revealed through sharing their experiences is that it is possible to survive failure, to learn from it, and to go on to new opportunities. Here are a few takeaways from the panel on how to persevere:

Define Failure

Our own Dr. Failure, Professor Yamakawa, suggested defining failure for you and your team: “Then you can anticipate it, you know how to cope with it, and you know how to learn from it, and you know how to apply the lessons learned.”

He termed this affordable loss: As an entrepreneur, you can set the boundaries of what you are willing to invest in terms of time, effort, and money before you end your venture. Is it $100,000? Is it two years? Whatever it is, define your acceptable loss, so you can acknowledge the failure, learn from it, and go on to the next venture.

Buy the Basil

K.J. spoke honestly and openly about taking failure personally. He explained the long-lasting effect that the hurricanes had on him: “One of the main products we grew at the farm was basil… I actually just for the first time bought basil last week. I could not, until last week, bring myself to purchase basil. It was a trigger for me.” The experience really impacted K.J., and he noted that “it hurts when you get hit like that.” But, moving forward, he is ready to embrace entrepreneurship and to face the possibility of failure head on.

Know Your Stuff

For Ian, an E. Coli outbreak challenged both him and his business, as the news hit the media and sales suffered. Through this struggle, though, he found an opportunity to deepen his knowledge. He was inspired to visit his suppliers and to learn more about his supply chain.

He also made an effort to develop his public speaking skills. Noting that he “did not like the spotlight at all,” Ian grappled with how to handle press inquiries. But, since then, Ian has been working on public speaking and getting comfortable in front of a crowd.

Be Open to A Pivot

When Emily’s manufacturer pulled out, she didn’t necessarily know where to take her dog food brand, Petwell Pet Foods, next. When she had an opportunity to open a brick and mortar retail location in Somerville, she went for it. Thanks to her previous failures, her learning curve has been much shorter this time around and success has come easier as well: “All of the failures that I experienced with my food company have ultimately set me up for more success in my retail store.”


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