A hard story to tell…

failure in business

We all open our artisan food businesses to succeed.

Failure is not an option.

We fear that if we fail, no one will trust anything we do ever again.

We fear that no one will ever loan us money or fund our future projects.

We fear that if we fail at our artisan food business, we will lose everything.

So why am I so passionate about failure? Because, I have had a business fail.
I’m dedicating today’s blog to failure. I’m sharing my experiences because my failed food business was a very difficult time in my life, and those of you who are there now should not feel alone.

I am here to tell you that those fears you hear and feel are exaggerated. Yes, a business failure can set you back and cost you a lot, but it doesn’t cost you everything.

That’s the thing about fear – it is the irrational voice in your head that automatically goes to the worst-case scenario. Fear wants to keep you safe. Fear wants you to avoid risk of any kind. Fear tries to keep you from “losing everything” (or really, anything).

It has been my experience that there are lots of steps between a business being shut down and losing everything. Believe it or not, you have time to recalibrate or go in a different direction. Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill said it best when she was asked what the most surprising thing she had learned after being in business for many years. She answered, “that there is life after failure”.

My failed business.

In 2008 (I know…good year to start a business, right?) Michael and I wanted to do “something fun” in the suburban town where we live. We wanted to recreate the candy store experience we had shared with our children when they were young and we would vacation in Wisconsin. We wanted to create a business in our suburban town in Marin County, where little kids could come on their birthday and teenagers could get summer jobs and hang out and create memories. We wanted to become a part of the fabric of the town the way we are at Noe Valley Bakery in San Francisco.

So, we started Lollipop Ice Cream. We made the organic ice cream on premises and stocked every kind of candy imaginable. It was colorful and super fun. Opening it was a creative and energizing experience.

On the business side, we used our own money. We got a bank loan and used our house as collateral.

We opened in July 2008. The construction cost us twice what we had planned, so our cash flow was stretched really thin. Then (you know what’s coming…) there was “The Great Recession”, the global economic crisis in September 2008. Everyone, in the world it felt like was experiencing the pain of the crisis and stopped spending money, all at the same time.

There we were with a brand new store in an out-of-the-way location with no money in the bank and no money coming in. We didn’t know what was going to happen at Noe Valley Bakery or anywhere else, for that matter, so we closed Lollipop in November 2008.

During the closure and right after, I had two strong feelings – embarrassment and panic. I was embarrassed that we had failed so publicly – there was no denying this one. Everyone in our town followed what we had done. I was panicked because I thought the business failure was the first domino to fall and it was going to start a chain reaction that would be catastrophic.

That was eight years ago, and we are still paying off the Lollipop business startup loan. Ouch. But my loan isn’t the only thing that has stuck with me over the last eight years.

Through my failure, I gained skills, strength and confidence that I could have never acquired simply by having successful businesses.
I learned that I am resilient
I learned that people are forgiving (more so than we are to ourselves)
I learned how to keep moving forward in business during bad times
I learned that my relationships with people were very strong and they served me well in difficult times (my family, friends and customers were all great)

So, if you are in the midst of a failing business, or if you think your business might be nearing failure, here is what I want you to know:
I am still standing. When this whole thing is over, you’ll stand too. I promise, you will be ok.
I am much smarter now. And after you get through this storm, you will have hard-earned stripes that no one can take away from you. Those lessons will guide you in your next venture.
There is life after failure. Even if you can’t see it right now, a wonderful life is still out there for you.
Failure is a sign of pushing the envelope and testing new things. Even if you bet on the wrong trends, ideas or timing, you bet on something. That risk itself is a trait worth remembering. You were brave.
If you aren’t failing sometimes, it is a sign that you aren’t innovating. If you never failed, you would be living an incubated life that never took a single risk, or created anything worth risking over. That is a too-small life. You should be proud of your innovations.
Things totally outside of your control can cause failure. Just like I had nothing to do with the global economic collapse of 2008, you might have had nothing to do with what you’re facing now. It’s part of the game. Breathe and let it go.
Every single successful entrepreneur has failed at some point. If you’re in this entrepreneurial game long enough, you will fail. It’s inevitable.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on failure, what you’re failed at — and if you’ve come out the other side, how you survived it and what you learned.