Fascinating insights into the startup community’s never-say-die spirit have emerged from a Business Insider interview with US entrepreneur Eddy Lu: co-founder of meteorically successful online sneakers market GOAT (short for Greatest of All Time). 
In the piece, Lu explains why he and his business partner Daishin Sugano took the path into startup culture following stints at Lehman Brothers, saying “I realised I’m not a good employee”, and lamenting: “I dreaded every Sunday afternoon when I was working at a big corporate job. I never felt that ever since we started doing our whole entrepreneurship journey.”
However, he and Sugano have bumped up against more than their fair share of failures in the course of that journey, spending more than a decade working through a series of costly flops across a range of sectors. Initially, they tried a tech route by developing 99-cent phone apps that nobody wanted. Then they moved through golfing apparel and a cream-puff franchise. In its early days, GOAT was almost sunk by a Black Friday promotion that backfired, because its warehouse didn’t have enough stock and the firm’s social media channels were flooded with negative feedback.
Asked about the key to wading through those setbacks, Lu says: “Definitely be resilient. I mean, GOAT’s had extreme success, thankfully, but it took a long time to get there, and it’s really easy to give up. It's really easy to burn out being a startup founder … it’s probably very unlikely you’re going to get it right on the first time. Or the second time. Or the third time.” He adds: “my belief is, let’s try something, and if it doesn't work, we can always change.”
With that in mind, how should entrepreneurs record or log the lessons that stem from their failures, so that they can build an ordered body of knowledge that may help them towards success further down the line?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “My question here is, do we need to turn our experience into an ordered body of knowledge and in some way externalise it – or is that essentially what our brains already do? Every time we have an experience, our minds order it and rationalise it in all the ways that neuroscience has emerged to explain. It also depends heavily upon our level of identification with the project. If you over-identify with the product or service that you’re hoping to deliver, then it’s only natural you’ll take the failure personally.”
Cooper notes: “what really stands out from the experiences of Lu and Sugano is that they didn’t take their setbacks personally at all. Instead, they saw them as great learning opportunities. From the interview, it looks as though they are motivated by – or even addicted to – the whole notion of ideas that work. Therefore, if they’re mired in an idea that isn’t working, they’re compelled to find another one that will.
“In many ways, Lu and Sugano’s travails show that they have programmed their brains to see that failure is not the end; that you can come back from it. It’s not a personal affront. You can be more resilient on the other side and better equipped to spot the pitfalls. It’s all down to how you process failure – if, indeed, you do process it at a conscious level.”
Cooper points out: “another interesting aspect to this story – which ties into the inherent romance of startup culture – is the approach that entrepreneurs take towards innovation itself. You can have a clever, new and innovative idea that feels utterly fresh, and yet that concept can run aground if customers don’t get it and there’s insufficient momentum to give it legs as a business concept. But by the same token, you can apply innovative thinking to a model that already exists – so you’re basically modifying it – and yet you can break that model, thereby sabotaging something that already worked.
“You’re looking at two, very different types of pain there.”
She adds: “I would think it’s highly likely that there are entrepreneurs out there who have experienced both types of pain in the course of their careers. And you can be sure that they will remember those feelings for some time to come. With each experience of failure, an entrepreneur will become incrementally better at predicting what’s likely to go wrong. But what every entrepreneur must grasp is that to operationalise an idea is a very different – and far more challenging – process than simply having that idea.”
For further thoughts on how to learn from mistakes, check out these resources from the Institute
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