How to Make a Small Thing Big: Growth in a Start-up

Can you believe we are already a month into our Year of the Startup series? We heard insightful inside info from the kindling of startups Guy Kawasaki and rules of communication from PR queen Gini Dietrich. A pretty good kick start to 2013. With a foundation like that you’re well on your way to launch your idea, product or service. But this month it’s all about growth. How does a kernel become a bag of popcorn, a seed into an orchard, or a one-stoplight town to a metropolis? How do you go from $1 to $100, from $10 to $10,000, from $1 million to $1 billion?

This month, we will focus on how you can use marketing and promotions to grow this mustard seed into the enterprise of your dreams. But in this blog post, we’re going to wax philosophical about what it takes to make your startup a reality. And believe me, it might not be what you want to hear.

Failure: The Best Startup Fuel

Imagine it’s the year 2000 and you’re a newspaper reporter. A successful businessman lures you away with an exciting startup opportunity. You leave a struggling industry to try your hand at building something great. But you’re still hesitant, hence you don’t tell your mom! She’d never understand you leaving a steady paycheck to jump off a cliff into the unknown. Doubt enters your mind but you push it away. You believe in this man, his idea and this company. You’re passionate about it and will work tirelessly to make sure it succeeds. Until one day you wake up thinking, What if this fails?

You walk into your new boss’s office and you express your fear of failure. After a long pause, he says one sentence that changed your life. Failure was indeed an option. It’s the conduit for success.

This scenario really happened to me and it happens daily around the world to people like you who take risks. Sure, the CEO I went to work for was an accomplished entrepreneur. He’s responsible for products that millions of people use each day. He’s been featured in The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and dozens of trade magazines. He operated several fast food franchises and was a self-made millionaire. Yet he understood that failure was the jet fuel to success.

I loved that when I first started working for him, the first place he took me was to the basement of his fancy world headquarters. “Here,” he said, “are all my failures.” The entire basement was an entrepreneurial graveyard. It was a burial place for all the products that didn’t quite make the cut. It was fitting they were in the basement because, he told me, Failure was the foundation for my future successes.

Failure: Laying the Foundation for Growth

Startups become companies when you take an idea, process it into a product or service, and make a sale. It’s that simple. But you can’t develop a successful product or process without repeatedly trying and in essence failing.

I think a lot of people can view failure as a negative and label themselves as such, Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO and Founder, told Shake the World author, James Marshall Reilly. People with an entrepreneurial spirit view failure as part of a process — not a permanent label. Don’t view failure as a character flaw If you get a cold, for example, you don’t view yourself as being permanently sick. It’s something you have to get through, then move on. I view failure in the same way.

So as we talk about using marketing and promotions for growth this month, remember that failure can be the best fertilizer you need. Still not convinced?

Some Failure/Success Stories

  • Rovio was near bankruptcy, its previous 51 games had failed to take off tremendously and it was on the verge of closing its doors before the Finnish company release a little mobile game called Angry Birds. (Read more about Rovio in this Wired piece.)
  • Dyson makes products that hipsters and colloquial people both love. Yet he make 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right, he tells There were 5,126 failures, Sir James Dyson said. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative.
  • When Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor graduated law school in 1952 she was a pioneer. She was also unemployed. No law firm would hire her. So she showed up to a California district attorney’s office and worked for free.

So in your startup race if you hit a snag don’t panic. Most people who create something from nothing have failed. But they are not failures. They just see failing as part of the process. And when they succeed they take it in stride because they know their meteoric growth didn’t come overnight. It came by overcoming failure.

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