Fail your way to success, experts say

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Not only is failure an option, it’s a necessity, according to Recca Larson, economic intelligence specialist for the City of Littleton.

“Failure as a concept can be kind of scary,” she told about 20 Littleton entrepreneurs during a free seminar Oct. 17. “But it’s an essential part of being in business.”

Failure is gaining in popularity. There are lots of books about it and annual Failcon conferences all over the world, first conceived of in San Francisco by event planners Cass Phillipps and Diane Loviglio.

“We both had produced or attended numerous events for the technology industry but had begun to realize things were starting to get repetitive,” they write on their website. “Events put successful entrepreneurs on stage to talk about how they made their company great, something that’s near-impossible to replicate and never about what they learned from mistakes along the way.”

There’s even a museum dedicated strictly to the world’s least successful products —think bottled water for pets, McSpaghetti, Toaster Eggs and, perhaps the most famous, New Coke.

Being successful all the time, says Larson, can lead to complacency and missing the signs of change in the industry or up-and-coming competition. Consider the demise of Toys ‘R’ Us after Amazon began selling more than just books, or the struggles of Blockbuster movie rentals after Netflix began sending them right to your mailbox — without charging late fees.

Larson says perhaps the wildly popular author JK Rowling said it best during her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard. She told the graduates that seven years after her own graduation, she was a single parent, poor, jobless and as close to homeless as you can get.

“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged,” she said. “I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

But there are better ways to fail than others, adds Larson.

Citing Tim Harford’s book “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure,” Larson advises business owners to be willing to fail a lot, because every attempt is an opportunity for success. But make sure you can survive a negative outcome, and realize early when something is failing and fix it fast.

“Take a holistic view of what you need to do going forward,” she said.

The city’s economic development department hosts such free seminars, complete with box lunch, on a fairly regular basis for Littleton businesses. The staff can also help with market research and strategy, mailing lists, location advice, navigating paperwork and much more, all at no charge. For more information, contact Jo Anne Ricca at 303-795-3749 or jricca@littletongov.org.

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