Sure, you can make the case that business cards as the relic of a pre-wireless era.

But you can also argue that most entrepeneurs still use them. More importantly, entrepreneurs like using them, as personal branding statements or snapshots of their design sensibilities. 

Count Vance Patterson, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Inc. 500 company Patterson Fan, as a fan in the business-card-as-personal-statement club. 

His card is like a C.V. of his life as a founder-leader. On the front, it lists the seven organizations he's started which remain going concerns, including Patterson Fan. These are labeled "hits."

On the back, it lists the 14 efforts he's led which are no longer going concerns. These are labeled "misses."


I use the word efforts because not all of the misses were organizations, per se. The last two, for example, were Patterson's campaigns for Congress in his North Carolina district in 2010 and 2012. 

(Public) Pride in Failure

Patterson first got the idea for the card about a year ago. At an event for entrepreneurs, he heard Arkadi Kuhlmann, founder and CEO of ZenBanx, speaking frankly about the importance of discussing one's failures: Mainly, the idea of "showing people you know how to fail and get back up and get going again," says Patterson. (In the interest of full disclosure, Patterson heard Kulhmann speak at Inc's Riders' Summit.

Soon after the summit, Patterson made his card. He quickly found that he was "more proud of the failures on the backside than the successes on the frontside." 

The card has served him well as a conversation-starter and connection-maker.

"It seems like every time I give the card out, I get into a good discussion," he says. Though he's grown numb to most of the 14 misses, he admits that "one or two still really hurt." Specifically, it's his restaurant endeavors--Trips Fried Chicken (1974) and Cody's Substation (1981)--that turn his stomach. "I'm not going back into the restaurant business," he says. 

But the silver lining of the misses is that some of them led to key connections for future successes. For example, the hit known as Iron Brew Coffee (2003)--a roaster of direct-trade coffee sourced only from Brazil's Cerrado region--owes a lot to a Patterson's business partner in Brazil. But Patterson first met and learned to trust this partner during one of the misses: Down South Grills (1997), a joint effort to manufacture industrial fans.

The Bigger Picture 

I asked Patterson if he felt young entrepreneurs were too comfortable celebrating failures, given all the talk around "failing fast" and events such as FailCon. "If I only had one 'hit' I wouldn't put all my 'misses' on the backside," he says. 

If there's something that bothers him about younger entrepreneurs, it's not the founders, per se--it's the notion of teaching entrepreneurship in schools. For him, entrepreneurship--the basic act of taking a fiscal risk, like mortgaging your house, to create a larger return--is not the stuff of classrooms.

After all, how can you replicate risk in an academic setting? "How do you teach someone to push your house out on the table?" he asks. "You don't teach that stuff. You just have to want to do it and say, 'Here we go.'"

Of course, for many entrepreneurs trained in academic settings, one of the benefits is the alumni networks--specifically, their ties to outside investors. But outside investors, Patterson believes, can shield a founder from the harsh emotional realities of leveraging all you've got on a business idea. "If it's not your money, it's too easy to walk away from it," he says. In all of his ventures, Patterson has never taken money from outside investors. 

Knowing When to Quit

Perhaps the hardest part of failing in entrepreneurship is knowing exactly when to quit on an idea. When is a setback something to learn from, and when is it a sign to abandon an idea entirely--to admit failure, to walk away?

Patterson believes that a big part of this decision is simply whether you're enjoying yourself. His campaigns for Congress--both times, he finished second in primaries--provide a great example. While he learned a lot and made many valuable connections, Patterson's biggest takeaway from the experiences was that the world of politics was just not for him. He says he will not run again, even if a victory were likely. "I just don't want to do it," he says. 

But as with previous misses, there were silver linings in the people he met. His two recent startups, Scrubs and More (2013) and Patterson Pyrotechnics (2013), are both joint ventures with partners he first met through his campaigns. In addition, Patterson launched Foundation Forward, a nonprofit through which he can act on what matters most to him in politics and government.  

All told, then, the biggest lesson from his business card is the most literal one: While you're viewing the hits on the front, out of sight are the misses behind the hits. But they remain present to Patterson, and continue to inform his efforts and activities, in his fifth decade as a serial entrepreneur.