Getting Comfortable With Failure

People don't like to talk about failure. In fact, whenever I said “failure” during the course of writing this story, people changed the subject. Over and over again. Walked away. Didn't answer questions.  

We're scared of the idea, and scared of the word.

But we shouldn’t be. Henry Ford's first two automobile companies failed. Then he started building cars that sold pretty well and . . .  well, you know the rest of that story—especially if you live in Michigan.

And he isn't the only entrepreneur who's had to try, try again in order to find the formula that works.

From failure comes revision. And out of revision, sometimes comes a hugely successful invention or business idea.

As entrepreneurs change their ideas, they learn. They learn how to frame and present ideas to catch an audience's attention. They learn what infrastructure has to be in place for a business to survive financially, how to best plan for the life of the business and how to find funding sources.

Next Bright Idea

A group of local entrepreneurs recently began the journey down this long road from idea to failure to revision, and—perhaps—to eventual success, by making it to the final round of the Next Bright Idea competition, hosted here in Lansing in late February.

The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) worked with three MSU students to create the Next Bright Idea competition. The event is designed to showcase creative talent in the region and encourage students in the community to stay around after college.

“They are the New Economy and our emerging leaders, locally and nationally," says Pam Jodway of LEAP, "We want to make sure that they feel like they're part of the community.”

It would seem that the project would be most successful if everyone involved could grow their business as a result of the competition. But there was only one winner, which left eight competitors who did not “win” in the sense of a first place ribbon and cash prize.

As the presentations began, it was apparent which business concepts had room for improvement. Some presenters were nervous, looking at note cards, the floor or their hands. Some weren't able to present their ideas clearly in the short time allotted. Some learned that posters that may have looked great inside a small, well-lit room didn't do much for a nighttime presentation in an expansive bar space. And some weren't even sure that judges understood the basic idea that they were trying to convey.  

But that's not nearly as important as what the competitors did once the competition was over—after they “failed.”

Recovery From Failure

Perhaps initially let down, most of the participants made the experience of "losing" the Bright Idea competition work for them in a positive way. Some are revamping their pitches, others have been reaching out to local business allies for some strategic help.

Justin Sailor, one of the judges, notes that every single participant was passionate about their business idea, but that enthusiasm didn't always translate into a stellar presentation.

"Delivering that passion and enthusiasm to a [live] crowd is different and more difficult," says Sailor, suggesting that young entrepreneurs, "should learn to push their enthusiasm to a crowd, because that's what you have to do when you're making any business presentation.

That's what competitor Angela Voss hopes to take away from the event, which she views as a stepping stone on the road to developing her recycling business.

“The competition was my first experience in front a large crowd, so it definitely helped to make the next time that much easier,” she says.

Voss is not the only one who used the Next Bright Idea loss as a learning opportunity. After the event, competitor Mark Thornton, creator of Sent By Scrooge, connected with I3 Strategies, a social media specialty company, as a way to rely on the strengths of existing businesses.

“I know something about marketing,” says Thornton. “But Julielyn Gibbons [of I3] really knows social media, and that will be crucial in getting our name out to customers.”

Lighter Side of Chocolate

Alexandra Clark was sure her idea was going to work. But she began her Bright Idea Bonbonerie presentation by eating Russell Stover chocolates in front of a hungry audience.

“What am I doing wrong by eating these chocolates in front of you?” she asked.

Soon, her helpers were distributing her locally sourced, handmade and responsibly purchased chocolate treats while she explained the ethics behind her business.
Event attendee Terry Terry said that he thought the Bonberie would win because the chocolate company was a “real idea with a passionate, emotional presentation—and it tastes good.”

Judges seemed to like it as well.

But she didn't win.

In some ways, Clark's presentation was useful advice to all of the entrepreneurs present. She asked the audience both what she was doing wrong, and what she could do right. She openly welcomed their feedback on her idea.

“The community sincerely embraced my idea” Clark says. “I met people. They introduced themselves as interested in funding my endeavor, or with opportunities for real estate, or guidance, or connections to other people they knew, or groups that they were a member of.”

A fellow finalist—one who is doing schoolwork abroad in Ghana—even began connecting Clark to cocoa producers in West Africa, and Clark is looking forward to pursuing this opportunity her cocoa connection returns to the U.S.

Clark continues working on her business plan while pursuing a degree at Massey University. But later, she hopes that her small fair trade chocolate company will inspire larger businesses to practice similar fair trade and local sourcing practices.
Entrepreneurs in Lansing are on a constant journey of learning and changing. They will inevitably fail.

But if they use those failures to make new contacts, connect to community leaders, garner good advice, find funding and identify other local talents who can help their businesses, aren't their failures really successes?

Leslie Wolcott is a new writer to Capital Gains and also contributes to the City Pulse.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Alexandra Clark 

Angela Voss removing recyclables from a client's location

Mark Thornton

Angela Voss

Alexandra Clark making chocolate bark at MSU

Sent by Scrooge packaging materials

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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