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Fear of Failure

Caitlin in a Halloween costume I made for her just before the business went down. Little did we know, the Big Bad Wolf would soon blow the house down, too.

One of the worst times in my life was a business failure.  It was back in the mid-1980s, when Caitlin was just a toddler, just before Liza was born.  My husband wanted to start an electronic yellow pages.  It was in the days before the internet–this was to be a telephone-accessed database.  People would call in and ask for a plumber or a restaurant or whatever and we would search by location or by feature or by price or whatever.

It was exciting in the early stages when we were developing the software. We raised the money from relatives and friends.  Others were persuaded of the innovative and convenient concept and some put substantial savings into it.  We needed a lot of capital to finance the equipment, so we reached out to a lot of people.

We started up in Austin, Texas and developed a smashing advertising campaign to raise the awareness of the telephone number (which was 345-6789, I kid you not).  We jingled the hell out of that number on the radio and reached 90% awareness in no time.  We got lots of traffic and so were able quickly to sell a lot of listings.

But the yellow pages business is fundamentally based on “Mom and Pop shops.”  So, when the bottom fell out of the oil market six months later and Mom and Pop started closing up shop, the writing was on the wall for us.

A horrible death watch began.  Every Friday, I would hold my breath to see if we would make payroll.  Eventually, we had to shut it down.  Like many others in Austin that year, we lost our house.  That happened right about the time Liza was born.  Within a few months, my marriage failed.  So, I was out on the street with two little children and no one to turn to but my family.  And most of that family had lost a good bit of money in my business.  It took me years to get over that experience.

People who promote entrepreneurship like to talk about how we have to get over the stigma we place on failure.  I always suspect that these glib speakers have never actually lived through a business failure themselves.  It’s an experience that pulls everyone around you down with it.  People are right to be afraid of it.  And women are more likely to worry about it than men.  I certainly worried more than my husband did.  And I think I carried the scars a lot longer, too.

Some 90% of business start-ups fail.  And that can happen even with the best of preparation.  Policy and education aimed at entrepreneurs needs to take that into account.

As we were getting ready for the Power Shift Forum, I kept telling the other organizers that we needed to have someone talk about failure.  But of course nobody ever wants to get up and talk about that in front of other people.  So, today, it’s going to be me who represents the tragedy of a business going down.  This is not something I like to talk about.  But I felt we needed to represent reality.  Yuck.

The other speakers have been more successful, so that will lighten things up.  We have divided this one into “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends” in order to try to illustrate the different stages of entrepreneurship, the way it unfolds in time, causing different strains and emotions as that happens.  The Beginnings session will feature three women at the early stage:  Rana Harvey of Monster Group, Julie Boyd of TR Fleet, and Shelly Hoppe of Southerly Communications.  In the middle will be Kresse Wesling of Elvis and Kresse, as well as Kyle Zimmer of First Book.  Ernst and Young will be on hand to offer perspective in that session, as well.  The End session will be mine.  But my demise will be balanced by Lara Morgan of Pacific Direct and Fleur Heyns of Global Trader.

More details about Power Shift are available here.


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