We Need to Talk About Failure

In 2009, I had an ambitious project that I was sure was a winner. Our plan was to build a system that would allow people to buy bus tickets without having to go to the bus stop, which seemed like an inconvenience that could be easily avoided.

I’d be the first to admit that we were wrong, and the project failed almost from the start. After we built the system and started promoting to bus sector players and consumers, we realised that we had misunderstood nearly every aspect of why public transportation works the way it does. The first reason our system failed to catch on is that there is a high amount of certainty and trust that comes with purchasing a ticket at the bus stop, where you can choose a seat that’s right there, or will be there when you come back for the trip.

The second reason was simple, although from the outside public transportation systems seem chaotic and unpredictable, there is a lot of order and structure in that chaos. There is a reason things work the way they do, and improvements to that system tend to be incremental, not disruptive. A few bus sector entrepreneurs didn’t hide the fact that although they liked the convenience and order our system promised, they were afraid that it would expose them to taxes.

But the biggest and most shocking reason our system failed is that we had missed what bus companies are really about. You might think that because buses compete for passengers with price cuts and additions to the travel experience, that people are the heart of their business model. You’d be wrong, as we were at the time. The core business of long distance bus companies is actually freighting cargo. That’s the part of the business model that’s easy to miss, and that would perhaps have benefitted with our attention and resources at the time.

I learnt a lot from that failure, and many others. In my years as an entrepreneur, I’ve found that we rarely acknowledge or discuss failed enterprises as often as should. Perhaps it’s cultural-the social and economic burden of launching any enterprise is so high that failure comes laden with a lot of stigma. But why should it?

Don’t get me wrong, excellence and success are good, but for every successful enterprise, there are many failed ones. In their ruins lie multiple lessons that can teach not just the entrepreneur, but others who might also want to tackle the same problem or enter the same market. Talking about failure would help us know what is working and what isn’t, and probably give us the kind of background to understand the reasons why.

What might have worked or failed yesterday, might work differently today. But how can we tell if we celebrate success and ignore, or even shame, failure. My point is that if we embraced failure enough, and shared the reasons we think we failed, then we could help younger generations of entrepreneurs avoid the same mistakes we made. Or even help those of us in established enterprises share lessons of failed ideas, business moves, investments e.t.c, that probably matter more to our decision making now than what we’ve done that has succeeded.

A part of me wonders whether I’d have understood how bus companies work if we had not taken a chance on ourselves. Or if we’d have found out what we did about the systems within without first trying to tackle a visible problem that turned out not to be as much an inconvenience as an established practice. What matters more to me is that that failure and others have continued to shape my entrepreneurial journey, and I try as much as possible to read up and seek stories of failure.

Entrepreneur | Enabling trade in Africa | Fintechs | Startups | Founder at Sendy