I spent part of last week at a conference called MultiMania in Kortrijk, Belgium, speaking about young U.S. entrepreneurs and learning about their European counterparts. One of the most striking things I discovered is that while young people in Europe do have the desire to start their own companies, many are faced with a major stumbling block that is largely cultural: fear. Not fear of taking the leap into the world of entrepreneurship, but fear of failing at it. The topic also came up at SXSW last March at a panel discussion on 'How to Teach Entrepreneurialism Globally.'
On all fronts, the consensus seems to be that it's awfully tough to encourage entrepreneurship in environments where failing is viewed as catastrophic and humiliating, as it is in many parts of the developing world as well as in Europe. Not that we are universally in love with failure here in the U.S., but somewhere along the way, many of our entrepreneurs seemed to start wearing their failures as badges of honor – evidence of risk-taking, resilience in the face of adversity, and the ability to dust yourself off and start over again.
But there's something else going on here as well, I think, and it's a concept that Srikumar Rao lays out brilliantly in his new book, Happiness at Work. It's about valuing process over outcomes. In other words, while you most certainly start a business with a big goal in mind, the true value of the entrepreneurial experience comes from what you do every day to achieve that goal. If you love the process and learn from it, then achieving the goal itself almost becomes secondary. In fact, you may discover that your accumulated knowledge can be leveraged more effectively toward an even worthier goal. It's that laser focus on the process – not obsession with the end goal – that ultimately leads to success.
Great entrepreneurs understand this intuitively and I'm beginning to believe that this is particularly true of our younger entrepreneurs. Last Friday at Elliot Bisnow's excellent DC10 Conference, I listened to Trip Adler (Scribd), Adam Smith (Xobni), and Drew Houston (Dropbox), speak with incredible enthusiasm and pride about the failed ventures that ultimately led them to their current successful businesses. 'The worst thing is not having your idea fail,' said Houston, 'it's when it takes a really long time to fail.' That's where fear comes in again: we'd rather hold on for dear life to something that doesn't work than admit failure.
So I left Europe with fingers crossed for the same type of youth entrepreneurship revolution that we're experiencing here in the U.S. Some notable bright spots: Fraser Doherty (otherwise known as Jam Boy) who started SuperJam with his grandmother's jam recipe and experienced his fair share of failure before taking the UK market by storm; and a little Belgian design company called Elevenfeet whose co-founder Wouter Doornaert summed it all up perfectly: 'So what if I fail? At least I'll have a story to tell.'
So what's your story? Tell us about how you learned to love your biggest failure.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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