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One Word Successful Entrepreneurs Never Use

There's a word successful entrepreneurs never use--and you should never use it, either.
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In 1991, I was working at a small lumber retailer in St. Paul as a lowly graphic designer. Each day, I'd fire up an old clunky Mac and use some archaic page layout program that doesn't exist anymore, type up ad copy directly on the page, and arrange a few graphics. It was a mundane job, but I was part of a small team that produced all of the marketing material for the retail stores, and our services were in high demand.

I was hired right out of college at a measly salary of only $19,000 per year. Usually, when my paycheck arrived at the office, I'd stare at it and wonder if they could add a few more digits. I didn't realize the company was in serious trouble at the time, but eventually they started firing people left and right (i.e., first the person on my left, then the person on my right). Even my boss and his boss were fired. I was left to run the department by myself, but eventually, the entire corporate office closed. When I came home to tell my wife about getting canned, she told me to buck up and start looking for a new job.

I had other ideas. A friend at the lumber company was thinking of starting a new company. He called and said he needed a designer. So, we rented a dingy office space in the back of an old retail store and added our phone number to the directory. With high hopes, we started meeting with potential clients, made a logo, and bought a few desks. Then the company went belly up after only one month. Our sales guy wasn't that interested in doing his job, we didn't have a clue about how to manage a business, and we were never that hungry to build the company. But I think there was a more serious problem.

We used the word failure.

I remember the conversations quite vividly, mostly because we didn't have anything else to talk about at the time. The company had "failed" to reach its full potential. We had "failed" to attract any new customers. We had "failed" to market our services in the industry. We accepted that we had no other choice but to close the company.

There was a sense, after only a week or two, that failure was an option. It was as though we had all bought a T-shirt that had the word failure printed in bold letters with an arrow pointing up. We accepted our demise. Instead of resolving some of those early problems--hiring a new salesperson, taking a night class in business management, digging deeper into our personal motivations, and setting long-term goals--we pulled the plug.

Is failure an option for you? If you are starting a company right now, realize that there is one word that successful entrepreneurs never use. It is just not in their dictionary. The word failure is as foreign to those who start a successful company as any other word.

Fortunately, I ended up getting a job at another startup, a company that still exists today. I moved up through the ranks in management and found my calling as a leader of writing and design teams. Those years were a boon for me: I learned how to manage large groups of people, push projects forward from an early concept phase until completion, and resolve problems without letting them fester for too long. Yet in 2001, I was fired again after the 9/11 attacks, because that industry became worried about growth potential. This time, I was much higher up on the pay scale. Amazingly, even at this stage in my working life, I was still tempted to use the word failure and crawl into a ditch.

But it never happened. I had stopped using the word.

Sure, my wife still told me to buck up, but this time, I actually did buck up. I've been working nonstop as a professional writer ever since. I never accepted getting kicked out of the corporate world as failure. In fact, I took that experience of being fired as an opportunity and turned it into success. The word failure never reached my lips.

Last updated: Jul 2, 2014

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

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



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