How to Survive Business Failure

Woman crawling in mud
Corbis Blog

Business failure – be that the failure of the business you own or the untimely collapse of your employer – is stressful. Here I speak from experience, having been among the 30,000 employees caught up in the demise of Woolworths at the start of the global economic crisis as it rippled out to the UK. As much fondness as we all had for Woolies, it was a chronically unprofitable, creaking dinosaur of the UK high street. The perfect storm of credit crunch, diminished consumer confidence and banks edgy about backing losing bets, made for a quick, unpleasant and unexpected end.

The collapse of a business when you are the owner can only be more distressing, particularly as this inevitably creates a knock-on effect that hits employees, families and valued customers along the way.

See Also: 6 Worst Celebrity Failures in Business

But you can survive business failure, and even come back stronger than ever. Failure, after all, can teach valuable lessons and be turned into success. It is a well-known story that Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts to make a light bulb before hitting on the one that worked – not only this but he was also fired from two jobs for being unproductive and told he was “too stupid to learn anything” at school.

Inventor and businessman James Dyson, meanwhile, spent his life savings on 5,126 unsuccessful vacuum cleaner prototypes before getting it right and building his current $4.5 billion business. And this resilience is not only learned in the worlds of design and business – Walt Disney was fired for having “no imagination” and lacking ideas, and Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school multiple times.

So, if you’re caught up in the midst of a business failure, don’t forget that if you’re experiencing and growing through failure, you’re in good company. Use these ideas to keep yourself motivated and know you’re not alone.

1. Stay Optimistic

Managing your own mental health, wellbeing and energy are the most important keys to surviving business failure. Staying optimistic is essential. Unfortunately, this becomes easier said than done when things are crumbling around you. No matter how tough things get, find time for yourself.

It may feel impossible but if you don’t look after yourself during periods of intense stress, you will simply burn out and be no help to yourself or anyone else. Whatever coping mechanism has worked for you during periods of stress will work again – be that hitting the gym, meditating or just having a night off away from work colleagues and surrounding yourself with friends.

2. You Are Your CV

If you’re in the middle of a collapsing business, you are likely to be starting to think and worry about what happens next. It can be extremely tempting to mentally switch off from your job before you’ve actually left, if you’re working out your notice period or awaiting the liquidation of the business. This is dangerous because you are your own CV. Prospective employers who know your situation will form an opinion of your ability based on what they see, not just your paper CV.

If your business has a physical presence – a shop, for example – then demonstrate your capability by keeping it looking ordered even as the business slumps. If you are your primary business asset, then show your ability through your professionalism and pride in the business you have built, even as you have to wind it down. Treat employees, customers, suppliers and clients well – you never know whether one of them will be the key to you finding your next job opening.

3. Build and Use Your Network

Having a strong network is never more useful than when you’re in trouble. Let those you trust know your situation and accept their help when offered. It can be tempting to shrink away when things get tough for fear of what people might think – be assured, however, that those who matter only wish you the best.

If you don’t have a strong network, a business failure can actually – ironically – be a great time to build one. If you’re faced with the prospect of your colleagues being scattered to the four corners of the world, then don’t go without connecting with them through virtual and ’real life’ channels. Reach out on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, exchange contact details, and keep the conversation going. You can help each other out as you move on to the next phase of your lives.

4. Practice Flexibility

A useful lesson learned through failure is how to adapt and adjust course. Many ultimately successful people, from Henry Ford to Colonel Sanders, failed in their first attempts at business, before tweaking their approach and making it big.

When Woolies went under, I had just been promoted and had the clearest career plan of my life. Within 6 weeks, I had no employer, and no realistic plan. With the added complication of my being pregnant at the time, my choices became somewhat more constrained than I’d have liked. However, by pursuing every opportunity that came my way (regardless of how far removed from my original plan they may be), I found that I could come up with a better plan by being flexible.

And some people take even more drastic action when faced with failure. Take Vera Wang, for example, now the owner of a $1billion empire of design, fashion and luxury goods. Wang started out as an aspiring figure skater. Having failed in her ultimate aim of joining the US national team, she looked to indulge her love of fashion as a writer and editor. She was overlooked for the prestigious role as editor in chief at Vogue before deciding to take another new turn, moving into design in her own right at the age of 40. For Wang, failure became the catalyst she needed to adapt and thrive; a useful lesson for us all in today’s turbulent economic environment.

The key to being flexible may lie in your mental attitude to change. Nothing is forever, so try to keep your options open. Try not to rule too much out – location, working pattern, job function, and contract terms can all be flexible to give you the best possible range of choices.

Finally, don’t forget that these hard times will pass. The “soundtrack” to the liquidation of Woolworths in our team was the Kipling poem If. If you can keep your head, while all around you are losing theirs, then you’ll make it through the failure of a business and out of the other side intact.

Crucially, being involved in a business failure does not make you a failure.

In fact, it could give you the experience you need to come back stronger than ever. After all, Steve Jobs was unceremoniously dumped from Apple – the company he helped to found – before coming back and helping make the company the success it is today. But did you also know that the founder of Honda was ostracised from the Japanese business community, who thought his individualistic ideas did not suit business culture? Soichiro Honda then went on to found his Honda motor company, and lead the revival of the Japanese motor industry in the 1970s. Just because you fail doesn’t mean you should lose faith in your abilities.

Failures can be turned into successes, and lessons learned along the way can be hugely valuable. If times are tough for you right now, don’t panic. Every time you see a trailer for a Disney film, pass a Japanese manufactured car on the street, or tinker with your iPhone, just think about the power of lessons learned through failure and keep on keeping on.