From setback to success: entrepreneurs who are fortified by failure

Participants tell our Confessions of a Small Business seminar how a cool head and self-belief can sometimes turn adversity into advantage

In 1984, John Stapleton was 19 and, in his own words, a “nifty triple jumper”, training with the Irish national team and hoping to represent his country in the Los Angeles Olympics. But injury struck and Stapleton never made it.

His coach told him that he had two options – waste time feeling sorry for himself, or start training for the next season.

Stapleton, who was speaking at the Guardian’s Confessions of a Small Business seminar, went on to found the New Covent Garden soup company, which pioneered the idea of fresh, chilled ready-made soups, and Little Dish, which offers healthy ready meals for children.

His favourite quote, he said, is from former American football player Lou Holtz: “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.” But Stapleton has his own spin: “If you don’t experience adversity, you’re not putting yourself out there enough.”

The event was an opportunity for small business owners to share what they had learned from setbacks along the way. For Stapleton, a strong belief in your product was key to its success: food industry experts had told him that chilled soup was unworkable and might kill someone – soups had to be sterilised. Ignorance of the scale of the challenge can sometimes be bliss, he added: “You can be halfway up the mountain before you realise what the challenges are.”

Stapleton’s keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion by the owners of three very different businesses: Joanna Montgomery, who founded Little Riot, which makes Pillow Talk wristbands; Nick Edwards, founder of software company Papaya Resources; and Arpana Gandhi, who founded Disarmco, a company that has developed a safe way of disposing of landmines and other unexploded ordnance (explosive weapons). Each had faced setbacks that could have ended their business.

For Edwards, whose company makes software for the food industry, the setback came in the form of human tragedy. In 2012, on the verge of signing an important legal agreement, his key developer was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Edwards, who knew little about how the product worked, decided to start again and formed a partnership with a large food manufacturer to make sure the platform met the needs of users. He learned not to rely on a single developer – he now has four. Terrible though the tragedy was, it gave him focus: “It really did shape where I wanted to take the business and now we supply quite a number of the food manufacturers in the UK.”

Gandhi’s journey to bring her Dragon Torch product to market has been a long, uphill struggle. Her business partner John Reid, who invented the product, died in 2014. “The whole process almost had to start again,” said Gandhi. “We had to find another innovator, who would believe [in it], to pick up the pieces and go along with the business.”

But investors weren’t interested in taking a risk on a product that might, in their view, not work. The proposition wasn’t helped by the case of businessman Gary Bolton, who was jailed in 2013 for selling fake bomb detectors. Gandhi’s decision to put £150,000 of her own money into the business did nothing to give investors confidence, so she went to crowdfunding company CrowdCube to raise a further £150,000.

She was encouraged by the messages of support she received. “There comes a point in business life where you just think everything is against you,” she said. “But then something comes along to give you a little bit more hope and that’s exactly what you hang on to, and you want to fight another day.”

Joanna Montgomery’s experience with crowdfunding was less successful. After five years of research and development, she used Kickstarter to raise funding for Pillow Talk, a product that transmits the sound of the user’s heartbeat, in real time, to their partner. The company quickly reached its target, but Kickstarter experienced a glitch that resulted in the business being able to collect only 60% of the money it had raised.

Montgomery said there were times when she felt like quitting, but was motivated to keep going by the response she had. “Every time I thought maybe this is not going to work, I’d get another email from a retailer saying, ‘Can we place a wholesale order?’, or just another ordinary person telling me their husband is in the military and how it would add value to their lives,” she said.

Two audience members shared stories of facing sudden downturns. One, Aidan Bell, had set up a solar energy business with a friend that within three years had 300 staff and was turning over £8m a month. When business stopped coming in as a result of a change to government plans, they limited the number of people they made redundant to 100 because they were “emotionally tied” to staff. Since then, Bell has set up EnviroBuild, which is a “bit leaner” and makes greater use of outsourcing rather than relying on payroll staff.

Another audience member lost a customer who provided 50% of their company’s business. “We were devastated,” she said. But it worked out: “It was good for us as we had to fight back and we grew the business back up.” That customer has now returned – but provides only 5% of the business: “We declared we would not have one company we were that dependent on again.”

Panelists admitted that one of the hardest things to do was knowing when to listen to other people. Montgomery said that she had often been offered conflicting advice, but had concluded that “the kind of people I want around me are those who give me advice, but then let me make my own decisions”. Because Edwards’s product covers multiple areas such as safety and HR, he has recently brought in “some key people that look after those areas. If I don’t listen to them, it’s going to be really pointless”. For Gandhi, the technical nature of her business made taking advice an imperative: “The bomb disposal experts and I have a rule of thumb. I don’t pick up a screwdriver and they don’t pick up a spreadsheet. It works very well.”

While many of the topics covered practical aspects of dealing with failure, all the speakers emphasised the psychological importance of self-belief and trusting your instincts. The last word goes to Stapleton: “You need to love what you’re doing. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re more than likely going to fail.”

This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

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