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It's Okay to Make Mistakes -- But Not These Mistakes

Why do entrepreneurs make the same errors, over and over? Here's how to steer clear of the Moron Hall of Fame.

Were there truly a Moron Hall of Fame, I imagine it would be a splendid Frank Gehry building shaped like a massive ear. It would serve as an icon to the biggest cause of meltdowns: failure to listen. Leaders are flooded with signals from various sources -- their market, their employees, board directors, and advisors. How they respond to this stream of information will govern their future prospects.

Great entrepreneurs develop deep conviction about their unique vision and believe there is little from the past that may be applicable, particularly if they are doing something disruptive. As a result, they notoriously shut out contrarian points of view. This is where the trouble begins.

The entrepreneur’s dilemma

To prevent failure we must look to the past, learn from others’ mistakes, and take good advice in real-time. All of this goes against the entrepreneur’s very strong conviction that what he or she is doing is truly unique. So as an entrepreneur, you are either doomed to live and die by your vision, or to force yourself to modify it based on a feedback loop. Pattern recognition is the key ingredient. Catching mistakes before they compound into failure is critical. Here are a few mistake memes. If they are hitting too close to home, that should be enough to sound the klaxon.

You don’t get it

Famously authored by Steve Jobs, the notion of “getting it” is reserved for those with compatible vision. Surround yourself with only those who “get it” and you are destined to fail. The only people who need to “get it” are those who are buying your product. Lack of traction in sales is a good signal that you may be ahead of the market, or perhaps you have misjudged it entirely. Experienced contrarians on your team may be able to save you, but only if you are willing to listen. 

Old rules don’t apply

This was perfected during the infamous dot-com meltdown. When challenged to explain how MyAwesomeIdea.com might make money some day, the answer was, “Make money? That’s in the old economy. Everything is different now.” In fact, everything did become different, except the idea of making money. It was how you made it that changed. Innovations do break rules, but the rules of business physics tend to stay intact. E-commerce was a major innovation, but it is still a low-margin high-volume business just like brick-and-mortar retail. If your business model includes the equivalent of an anti-gravity device, you are likely headed for hard times.

Denial

Denial runs deep in the human genome, so this instinct is very hard to fight. In entrepreneurs it is like a force field. There is a pervasive feeling that bad things only happen to other companies. But no one is immune. The denial bubble generally gets busted the first time you have to do layoffs. This difficult task is a sign that you were in denial to many signs that things were not on track. Even in the face of directives from the board, first-timers will delay tough decisions in the hope that somehow their special shields will ward off evil. Those delays can lead to the beginning of the end.

Lifeline

No matter what your age, there is someone with more experience who has already blazed through failure. You need to find your Yoda, someone who you will trust to provide tough love to keep you from driving off a cliff. Then you will have to make yourself listen no matter how counterintuitive it feels. 

Simple logic

Company failure rates have remained torturously high, yet most failures are caused by the same kinds of mistakes. Airline pilots are required to have recurring simulator training where they will face the very situations that others have failed at. They are forced to listen. Take a page from their book, and you will stay clear of the Moron Hall of Fame.

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Last updated: Nov 27, 2013

BARRY SCHULER | Columnist

Barry Schuler is managing director for DFJ Growth and the former chairman and CEO of America Online. He is credited with being one of the pioneers of the modern Internet.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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