How not to start a business, courtesy of #Failfest - Generocity Philly

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May 9, 2016 3:28 pm

How not to start a business, courtesy of #Failfest

Local business leaders, including a few social enterprise founders, shared lessons from their worst professional failures during the Philly Tech Week event.

Saxbys founder Nick Bayer speaks at #Failfest.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Failure happens to all of us. What matters is what we learn from it.

Ever the fans of productive failure stories, we were pumped to attend Philly Tech Week‘s #Failfest, an annual convening of local entrepreneurs who have had some tough times — but bounced back. Here are some of their best tips.

Don’t let anyone else define your failure

Lawyer Nikki Johnson-Huston makes part of her living via ventures such as her app Donafy, which allows users to donate to local nonprofits and notify those organizations of people in need of help nearby.

She makes the other part by traveling the country talking about failure — she likes to say, “It’s not whether you’re going to fail, it’s when you’re going to fail.”

Johnson-Huston got a college scholarship, then failed out of school. She picked herself back up by becoming a nanny for a family of lawyers, who helped her find her path to law school. Over the years, she was able to reflect on why she had previously failed and learn from it. By taking responsibility for her actions and articulating why she failed to, say, potential employers, she was actively crafting her own story.

“If you don’t own your narrative of your failure, someone else will,” she said. “I have succeeded more than I have failed, and that’s what makes the difference. … Failure doesn’t make you a failure.”

Don’t go it alone

Melissa Alam, founder of online magazine Femme & Fortune, has started several entrepreneurial ventures since middle school, including the now-defunct, women-only coworking space The Hive.

The Hive got a ton of press when it first opened, but despite the 70 women who said they were interested in joining the space, only eight signed up. Alam struggled to pay rent each month. To make ends meet (and to quench her thirst for creativity), she began hosting professional and personal development workshops as well, which stretched her energy thin. As she put it, she was working her ass off with no real payoff.

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When her lease ended after a year, she realized she needed to “break up with my business” for her own good. The lesson?

“I can’t do it all,” Alam said. She plans to find a partner as passionate as she is when starting a business in the future.

Don’t be unprepared to scale quickly

After Temple grad Richard Henne worked for a series of ill-fated companies — including one that turned out to be a pyramid scheme — he cofounded Ivory Ella, an online clothing store that donates 10 percent of its net profits to nonprofits such as wildlife conservation organization Save the Elephants. The social enterprise had the good fortune of selling out of all of its first shirts in 17 minutes. However, that led to a hefty number of shirts on preorder, which the team hadn’t prepared for. Customers waited up to 100 days for their products.

Hiccups like these will always come about unexpectedly, Henne said.

“A lot of things went wrong and continue to go wrong every single day,” he said. “But throughout all of these failures, we continue to succeed and bring change to the world.”

Don’t rely on credit cards

Saxbys founder Nick Bayer said he always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he didn’t have the startup capital for it. When he was building his first location, he rang up $150,000 on credit cards. That’s a pretty huge amount of debt that could be hard to pull yourself out of.

Don’t sacrifice practicality for culture

Wil Reynolds, founder of digital marketing agency Seer Interactive, pointed to few instances of culture failure in his quickly growing startup.

One was the offering of unlimited vacation — which probably sounds crazy to most not in the tech scene, but seemed like a good idea to Reynolds because then he didn’t need to spend as much of his own time managing other people’s time. However, some employees took advantage of the policy, including two who took off for several weeks, then immediately quit upon return.

One was the lack of titles. The idea was to eradicate company hierarchy, meant to encourage camaraderie. Reynolds realized, though, that only the CEO doesn’t care about titles. When the boss doesn’t acknowledge upward professional shifts, they prevent their employees who have the left the company and did a great job to prove their progression in future interviews. Reynolds said the practice may have prevented some of his former employees from getting jobs at their true skill levels. 

Don’t beat yourself up

Software development company BuLogics CEO Felicite Moorman listed many of her own personal and professional failures, but the most important note she imparted from all of them was that she forgave herself for allowing them to happen.

“When you look back, do not judge yourself,” she said. “You make the best decision you can at the time.”

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Julie Zeglen

Julie Zeglen is the editor of Generocity. Previous to joining the Technically Media team, she served as managing editor of Star Community Newsweekly, a hyperlocal newspaper focused on Philadelphia’s River Wards. The Temple alumna lives in West Philly.

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