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When Is Business Failure OK?

Business failure is a fear of every business owner. In some countries and in some cultures (for example, Japan), it’s considered the worst thing possible. But is it?

Business Failure Is in the Eye of the Beholder

You’d think the definition of business failure would be clear-cut without much controversy. The opposite is true. You may have heard that most small businesses fail. Your bank probably says this. The Small Business Administration (SBA) has said it for years. It’s based on a definition that doesn’t match the research unless you define a failed business as any business that closes its doors or ceases to exist, for any reason.

Where does failure come in? It’s often not about the money. Borrowing from a spectrum of failure developed by Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, common causes for business failure are due to:

• Deviance: Violating a prescribed process or practice and the market doesn’t respond.
• Inattention: Making mistakes due to not paying enough attention, not know what to pay attention to, etc.
• Lack of ability: An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions, or training to be a business owner of a viable, profitable business. They may know how to run projects but running a business is a different skill set.
• Process inadequacy: The business uses outdated, out-moded, or incorrect processes and so there are a lot of redo’s and a lot of waste.
• Task challenge: The business faces reliability issues perhaps due to supply or execution of the delivery, maintenance, and support of the services.
• Process complexity: The business has too many “working parts” that don’t sync well together.
• Uncertainty: The business owner’s vision is not clear, he or she takes too many risks, and tries to use a “shotgun approach” to minimize those risks.
• Hypothesis testing: An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or design will succeed fails instead.
• Exploratory testing: A business on the “bleeding edge” that comes up with something the world is not ready for yet.
Volume rationalization: A business that believes quantity will solve all its problems.

However, businesses close for many reasons. Owners with very successful businesses still close their doors. What are other main reasons a business might shut down? Here are a few:

  • Illness or death of the owner or key staff
  • Family crisis
  • Desire to do something else
  • Desire not to own a business any more
  • Burnout

Some owners choose not to sell their business to someone else. There are as many reasons for not selling as there are for shutting the doors and just walking away. The owner

  • Doesn’t think anyone can do it as well as they can and so they just don’t try to find some way to have the business continue.
  • Is in a hurry and doesn’t want to make the effort to sell it or find someone to run it.
  • Isn’t committed to it; for them, it was a stop in between jobs.
  • Decides to go a different direction and just is no longer interested in what happens to this business.
  • Goes into business with someone else who has a business and drops this business to provide additional resources for the other business.

This last reason happens a lot. Until fairly recently, the SBA and others considered it to be a business failure if people merged their businesses and one or more vanished.  After a lot of persuasion, they have revised their view to a more realistic one. Now, a business failure is one that closes its doors owing money.

How Can Business Failure Bring Success?

How many times can one owner fail? As many times as necessary before he or she gets it right. The founder of one of the most successful Inc. 500 fastest growing privately held companies told fascinated listeners at the Austin Heavy Hitter Dinner in the 1990’s that he failed seven times before arriving at the right business for him. It was Educare, a group home for people with mental disabilities, which still exists and has multiple locations throughout Texas.

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About Jan Triplett

Jan Triplett, Ph.D., CEO of the Business Success Center, uses tools and systems she created to ramp up and scale businesses throughout the US and abroad. She is the author of several books and the former moderator for KUT’s nationally syndicated radio program, “The Next 200 Years.” She has been a keynote speaker for hundreds of national and international trade associations and presents free monthly webinars business development topics. She has served on state and local boards and commissions, created a chamber for women, won many awards, led international trade missions, and been a local, state and national small business activist for many years. She was the Governor’s delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business and an NFIB delegate to the Congressional Summit. In addition to writing her own blog, she writes for the Business Bank of Texas’ Resource Center. She hosts several Meetup groups, including an online one for bloggers, and leads the First Looks Mentoring Forum, a joint project with Texas Entrepreneurs Network. She is currently working on setting up a podcast radio network, BOSS-Talks Radio Network.