Michelle Rodger: Success will be elusive without lessons of failure

BUSINESS failure is not cool in the UK. It's considered shameful, reckless, stupid, embarrassing. Admit you've had a failed business in a networking situation and you find fellow networkers avoid you like the plague.

Look to our friends across the Pond and the tables are turned. If you've burned a few hundred thousand on a start-up then you're considered entrepreneurial, experienced, investor-savvy and worth another punt.

We wouldn't have cures for horrible diseases if it weren't for mistakes (think penicillin for example) yet we still don't accept the need for them. According to Doug Richard, serial entrepreneur and founder of School for Start- ups, mistakes are an essential part of the startup process.

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There's no way you can really be informed enough to make all the decisions an entrepreneur has to make. As he says, if you spent the time required to research all the answers to all the questions you need to ask in order to avoid all mistakes, the vast majority of business opportunities would fly right by you.

The challenge is in recognising what the learning opportunity is from the failure and then making damn sure you don't make the same mistake twice.

The best way to learn is, without question, by getting things wrong, says Tony Lucas, founder of Flexiant. Lucas admits it's something that is painful for people to consider, but says he made mistakes all the time in his first business and now encourages his staff to be the same way.

Lucas has already sold his first start-up and is now involved in a second. He says he has no issue with people making mistakes as long as individually, and as a company, they learn from them. He believes there needs to be a change in attitude of people in business, otherwise potential entrepreneurs will be too scared to take a risk.

"A business failing should not be treated as a stain on an individual's record," insists Lucas, who has spent time working in Silicon Valley and has been involved in the start-up scene in Scotland and London. The differences are clear. "In the UK the impact of a business failing can seriously damage a person's credibility and reputation. It's quite clear to me that people in the UK are far more risk averse that those in Silicon Valley.

"Some people will argue that's a good thing, especially with the fallout from the financial markets, but if you look at the wealth and success being created out of Silicon Valley alone, it's easy to see the argument doesn't hold much weight."

Rachel Elnaugh knows what it's like to have a business that fails, and more so, as the first female dragon on Dragons' Den, understands what it's like for that failure to be public. The founder of Red Letter Days says entrepreneurs go on a journey, and you can't judge success or failure until the journey is over and the destination – business sale or retirement – is reached.

"There's unnecessary nastiness and abuse from all sides when your business fails, but that criticism comes from people who have either never tried to be an entrepreneur or have a small business and have never tried for anything bigger," says Elnaugh.

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"That has to change. Being an entrepreneur is a journey, and measuring success or failure at any one point during that time is pointless. You can only judge success or failure at the end of the journey. To do so at any other time is unfair and can prevent people trying again."

It must be said that not all failure is the same; there's a difference between unfortunate bad timing and having an entrepreneur who is technically brilliant but a poor manager, and there's a fine balance between losing your business and throwing it away.

There is little to be learned from allowing your company to fall apart bit by bit without your intervention to save the day. Or from closing down a business one day and rising from the ashes the next, perfectly positioned to make the same mistakes all over again.

However, fighting to survive, to keep your business alive every single day, examining what went wrong and meticulously trying to rebuild without the original mistakes is an incredibly valuable learning experience.

I'm not suggesting you have to fail to be a success. If you can make it to the top without failure and by learning from other people's mistakes, then congratulations – there aren't many like you.

Just remember, failure to try is by far the worst thing that can happen to you.