Learning from Failure

Is there a better way to fail?

I have failed at many things in my business career; fortunately, these failures have been interspersed with a few successes along the way. I’m not too sure what I have learned from success, as it’s often a pleasant experience and one to savour, so there isn’t too much time for self analysis and introspection: quite often people don’t really now why they have been successful and, to be honest, they don’t really care. Failure though is a different matter; it can be brutal and painful: it gets you thinking more about what went wrong and what you could have done better.

I am sure I have learned much more from my many failures than I have from my successes. But do you learn in proportion to the scale of your failure? If you do than Masayoshi Son, the Korean-Japanese business man, founder and current chief executive of SoftBank Corp, who has just orchestrated the purchase of Sprint Nextel Corp, the US’s third largest wireless carrier, should be a very wise man indeed. Although now the second richest man in Japan, in the dot com crash of 2000 he is reputed to have lost $70Bn; the most ever lost by one person in history.

Son is the quintessential entrepreneur, an enterprising individual who builds capital by doing things differently and taking a little more risk than many of us feel comfortable with.  Encouraged as a teenager by the then president of McDonalds, Son came up with one business idea a day until he struck gold with a translating device that he sold to Sharp Electronics for $1M. Son has come a long way since then. Although he has had his failures, they haven’t got in the way of quite considerable business success: today Softbank owns Japan’s largest broadband provider and its third largest mobile operator too.

Son picked up the Japanese part of Vodafone in 2006 and turned it around, building market share by winning customers from competitors with aggressive marketing and price discounting; he seems comfortable in this market challenger role. Sprint is both heavily indebted and somewhat overshadowed in the US market by its two bigger rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless. With a capital injection of something like $8Bn this deal gives it the enticing opportunity of repeating what Son did in Japan in the much bigger US market.

This is the largest ever over-seas acquisition from Japan and something of a surprise as it was thought that Sprint would eventually be forced to merge with a domestic rival. The US wireless market is now likely to be a far more competitive place than it might have been without Son. He now has a great platform to leverage both his success and his experience in doing something similar in Japan. It would be unwise to position Son as a rich man on an ego trip; few people can claim to have achieved so much, or to have taken on bigger challenges and, mostly, won them.

I know that there is huge learning that comes from failure. If you think carefully about why things go wrong and discipline yourself not to do the same things again you will undoubtedly create more value for your business. Failure is excellent feedback and you should learn to embrace it, however, unless you are Masayoshi Son it is best to avoid failing big, so that you have more chance of surviving to fight another day. Son is the exception that proves the rule that when it comes to failure small and quickly is always best.


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