Why we should learn to celebrate failure

Entrepreneur Sara Blakely has a fascinating story to tell about her journey to success. Armed with a pair of pantyhose, some scissors and a bright idea, Blakely founded the popular ‘shapewear’ brand Spanx, adored for its ability to make women (and more recently, men) look slimmer and trimmer.

The prototype for Blakely’s product came about when she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose – and voila! Spanx, a slimming undergarment with no panty lines, was born. Over the years, to the delight of Blakely’s customers, the company has diversified its product line. The company now sells more than 200 different products under its Spanx brand, including bodysuits, jeans, bras, panties, bikinis, maternity wear and underwear for men.

Spanx, now a billion-dollar company was reportedly profitable in its very first year of operation, with total revenue of around US$4 million that year. Blakely, never having the need for investors, owns 100% of her company and is sometimes credited as being the youngest self-made billionaire in modern history. Considering that Spanx was started with just US$5,000 of Blakely’s life savings, Spanx’ success is even more impressive.

Blakely is celebrated for her business success, but insists that a major reason she is successful is because she learned to celebrate failure. According to Blakely, when she younger, at the dinner table, her father would ask her and her brother what they had failed at that day. Together, as a family, they would celebrate their failures with high-fives and congratulations. Blakely’s father would actually be disappointed if she and her brother hadn’t failed at anything that week. Blakely’s father understood that if she hadn’t failed at anything, she probably wasn’t challenging herself to try new things.

As a result of her father’s peculiar, but insightful, habit of encouraging failure, Blakely reframed her definition of failure. “Failure for me became not trying, versus the outcome”, she says. It was this acceptance of the possibility of failure that gave Blakely the courage to self-patent the idea for Spanx (she couldn’t afford to hire a patent lawyer), approach multiple manufacturing facilities to produce the product (most manufacturers turned her down), pitch her product to retailers and launch her company.

Blakely isn’t the only billionaire who advocates embracing failure as a sometimes-necessary precursor for success. Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin group of companies, has experienced tremendous success in the business world. But he’s also failed in many of his ventures. Virgin Cola, a product designed to compete with Coca Cola is no longer on the shelves. Neither is Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cosmetics, Virgin Clothing or Virginware (which was meant to compete with Victoria’s Secret).

Despite his past business failures, Branson is known for not being intimidated by the possibility of future failures. By Branson’s own admission, when it comes to business, his mantra is “Screw it, let’s do it!”, a philosophy detailed in his book of the same name. Branson doesn’t allow the fear of failure to prevent him from trying new business ventures. Just the opposite — he embraces failure and pushes forward. Branson actually encourages the modern-day entrepreneur to embrace failure.

But although many successful individuals endorse the need for failure, Blakely’s story stands out perhaps because of her family’s unusual dinnertime ritual of outright celebration and encouragement of failure.  Today, Blakeley continues her family tradition in the workplace. In an interview with BusinessInsider.com, Sara Blakeley revealed that in an effort to encourage her employees to fail, she regularly talks about what she calls her “oops” moments – teachable moments centered around the mistakes she personally has made. This openness signals to her team that it is okay to fail. “If you learn from it, and if you can all laugh about it, it’s all worth it,” she says.

But having a tolerance (or even an appetite) for failure is no excuse for recklessness. It would be wise for entrepreneurs to follow the lead of other successful business leaders who, even while appreciating the benefits of failure, found ways to manage their risk.

For instance, when Richard Branson started Virgin Airlines, he approached Boeing with a proposal to lease a Boeing 747 plane from the company. Instead of ordering an entire fleet of airplanes, he tested his idea with a single plane. Additionally, his agreement with Boeing stipulated that Branson had the option of returning the plane if his venture didn’t take off (pun intended). That clause in the contract acted as a buffer to ensure that in the event that Virgin Airlines failed, Branson’s other businesses wouldn’t be affected if the airline was grounded.

Blakely also found a way to manage her risk. Instead of manufacturing multiple items and trying to convince retailers to stock multiple products, Blakely manufactured and sold only one item – the original Spanx.

Blakely and Branson both engaged in what Jim Collins, the author of Great by Choice, referred to as “firing bullets, then cannonballs”. Both Blakely and Branson tested the waters by “firing a bullet” which was a relatively low cost and low risk version of their businesses. They then recalibrated and, once they demonstrated that their bullet had hit the mark, they “fired cannonballs” which turned out to be hugely successful businesses.

Blakely’s and Branson’s perspective on failure should be an inspiration for entrepreneurs, business owners (and anyone else for that matter) who have an idea for a new product, service or innovation. Like Blakely and Branson, you may need to hedge your risks and start small, but at the very least, you should start. And, sure, like Blakely and Branson, you might fail along the way, but just imagine the successes that might arise from your failures.