When Life Hands You Lemons...


Success is the magic elixir all entrepreneurs crave. It tastes sweet and makes the whole journey worthwhile. Failure is what entrepreneurs fear and go to extremes to avoid. And when failure does finally catch up, many take the easy route of burying their heads in the sand. Others embrace the experience and learn all they can.

I've had my share of both success and failure. I have no doubt that the most important lessons life has taught me stem from failure. And interestingly, the bigger the failure I've suffered, the bigger the success that has always followed.

YOUNG AND GREEN. As an entrepreneur who has co-founded two tech companies, helped produce a Hollywood film, and achieved many other milestones, I am considered successful by many people. Yet, if I were to list my failures, I could write volumes. I wouldn't know where to start -- or where to end.

My first experience with failure on a grand scale came when I was a young computer programmer in Canberra, Australia. Like a typical techie, I just knew I was the best software developer on the planet and could do no wrong. That was until some last-minute enhancements I made to our computer systems disrupted corporate operations for an entire day.

Fortunately, I had a forgiving boss who saw this as a great lesson for me. And he was right -- my techie ego and arrogance disappeared rapidly, and I developed a new focus on learning from those with more experience.

SAYING NO. And then came my software startup years. At a CS First Boston/IBM (IBM) spin-off, my job as chief technology officer was to deliver quality products and help make the company grow. In the software world, customers always desire new features, and salespeople always want you to promise the world so they can close deals. It didn't take long before the promises caught up with my team's ability to deliver.

For more than a year, we suffered one customer setback after another, loss of critical business, and declining company morale. And I had to take sharp criticism from the sales staff I was trying so hard to help. The lesson I gradually learned was the importance of saying no -- forcing the company to walk away from business at times -- and staying focused on commitments I had already made.

For a while, it felt as thought the sky were falling. But with lots of hard work, we solved every critical problem and turned almost all our customers into loyal references for ourselves. And our startup grew into a magnificent public company, with $100 million in revenue.

SUDDEN CRISIS. Most people think that, once you've taken your company public, you've achieved success and live happily ever after. That couldn't be further from the truth. The public markets are very fragile, and it doesn't take much for a company's star to fall.

As often happens in the tech world, there were some last-minute delays in sales, and the company missed its numbers one quarter. It suffered the retribution that follows. To my dismay, not only did the public markets decimate the value of our stock but also customers behaved like deer in the headlights, analysts turned sour on us, employees started focusing only on their paper losses, and disagreements ensued.

As a tech guy, I found it easy to stay out of the battle zone. It was difficult, however, to watch the rapid destruction of a team and culture that took so many years to build. We went from hotshot tech execs to targets of intense criticism. It was enlightening to experience how the world can turn on you overnight, and how superficial success itself is. And I got to learn who my real friends were.

UNANTICIPATED SUPPORT. I took to heart all these lessons when I started my own company in the late 1990s. We built a great team, excellent technology, and made sure to satisfy every customer. Analysts and clients alike lauded us, and we received attention from major publications. When investment bankers knocked on our doors offering an early IPO, we resisted the temptation.

When the tech bubble burst in 2000, I learned another valuable lesson: You can do just about everything right and still face failure. Even though we were not a dot-com and had a solid foundation, the downturn hit us hard. It felt like a meteor had slammed into Silicon Valley and wiped out most intelligent life in the tech sector. Customers simply stopped purchasing nonessential software. Out of the blue, a financial crisis hit us, and I had no choice but to cut costs and downsize the company.

Life sometimes presents very positive surprises. I was blown away when my management team offered to defer pay until things improved. And our rank-and-file employees volunteered to take across-the-board salary cuts. Some even continued to show up for work after we laid them off.

EVERYTHING'S TEMPORARY. With venture capitalists, reeling from their own losses, simply not funding, my management team and personal friends invested their own savings to get the company through the crisis.

Thanks to dedication like this, it didn't take long to turn the company around. At a time when so many tech outfits were going out of business, we were riding high. We had just taken failure and turned it into a big success.

Then came a health scare for me and my eventual foray into the film world (see BW Online, 1/21/04, "Bollywood, Here I Come"). In a nutshell, I've found that success is always temporary, and that failure always serves as the motivation to do better.

GETTING THERE. I spend a lot of time mentoring fledgling entrepreneurs, and know some very accomplished people. Like me, all of them have endured major failures along the way. The most successful are the ones who take as much pride in their failures as their successes.

The most enlightened understand that the journey is the reward.


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