Life & Culture

The importance of failure


I know how lucky I am that my name is now associated with success thanks to the global popularity of my books on baby weaning. But, believe me, it hasn't been easy, I have walked hand-in-hand with terrible disappointment on my journey. Which is why I think I've figured out precisely what makes a business successful. Failure.

We've become a society in which people are scared of making mistakes, where parents fear their children have to map out their career route precisely at an early stage to protect themselves from uncertainties, in which risk-taking is frowned upon instead of celebrated.

From my experience, I'd urge anyone tripping over hurdles en route to their goals to keep on keeping on. Knock-backs, setbacks and stumbles challenge your commitment, sharpen your focus and resolve your will to succeed - and I am not the only one to think so.

Many established people and products became success stories in the face of criticism, doubt and mistakes - not a smooth. supportive journey to the top. Winston Churchill famously said that "success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm".

It is the bumps in the road that foster perseverance, ensuring that you constantly fine-tune your idea. Business conversations have the potential for negative feedback, an outcome that should be welcomed as a space to solidify your objectives, cement your motivation and stoke your persistence. The entrepreneur and former Dragons Den guru James Caan once said to me that: "When you have an idea, rather than simply ask people what they think about it, ask them why they think it might fail, and then you might learn something."

Annabel's top tips

● Do your research
You can't take the plunge without having the knowledge to support your idea, estimate sales and assess viability. You must prove the concept works before you can raise cash or risk losing your own.
● It's never too late to be what you might have been
Life is too short to stay in a job where you are not happy. You can de-risk a move into self-employment by saving 3-6 months' salary to act as a buffer.
● Believe in yourself
Sometimes confidence is more important that competence. The more you believe in yourself and in your chances of succeeding, the more likely you are to do just that.
● Find Your Niche
Look for a gap in the market. You don't have to invent something new, you just need to do something better than anyone else. And don't try and be all things to all people. It's often better to keep within your specific area of expertise and own that space.

I learnt the value of persistence with my first book, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner. It was turned down by 15 publishing houses. Each rejection letter could have been enough for me to doubt the viability and worth of my idea but I continued to believe in my pitch. I knew that I was closer to my target audience than the people writing to tell me my book wouldn't sell. I knew that it would.

I was new to the publishing world and didn't know the rules, which meant I wasn't afraid to break them, so I kept approaching people and broadcasting my vision.

Fortunately, a friend introduced me to a small, dynamic book packager, who created book ideas and sold them on to publishers. They understood what I was trying to achieve and worked with me to shape a mock-up which they took to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where it was sold to publisher Simon & Schuster who ordered 25,000 copies.

This deal unlocked doors that had previously remained shut. Fellow mum Gail Rebuck, current Chair of Penguin Random House (head of Ebury at the time, an imprint of Random), saw that the book would fill a niche and agreed to take it on. It sold out within the first three months of its print run without any advertising support, success resulting from word-of-mouth recommendations among the intended market, the market that I always knew shared my support for the book. It is now the second best-selling hard-back non-fiction book since records began in the UK.

The experience taught me that you have to remain your biggest advocate, despite the inevitable negativity you encounter. It is normal to have moments of self-doubt and it is reassuring to be bolstered by external experts, contacts and peers who remind you that your vision is a marathon not a sprint.

A friend once told me that she borrowed money from a bank and invested it in a business that didn't work. When she wanted to borrow money again she tried all sorts of ways to raise capital but eventually had to go back to the bank as a last resort, fearing rejection. But she got the investment. Years later, when the business was thriving, she asked the manager why he agreed to lend the money. He replied: "I prefer to lend to you because the first time round you failed and so learned how to succeed. I knew you wouldn't make the same mistake."

The opposite of success isn't failure, it is not trying. If you seldom fail, there is a good chance you're playing it too safe. In my experience, a failure in one area leads you to success in another. For instance, I once launched a range of fresh baby food because I was concerned toddlers ate products that were older than they were. My range of fresh, chilled baby food for Sainsbury's failed because there was no chiller in the baby aisle, so new mums hunting for nappies didn't realise it was being offered.

The high wastage meant the range was scrapped but I persisted with the idea, adapting my fresh purées slightly to extend their shelf life. It was a huge success as they tasted delicious just like my homemade purées - but only because I had failed first time around and regarded that failure as an inspiration rather than a crushing blow.

Failure rarely feels good but the lessons it teaches may not take long to become apparent, and are likely to lead you on to greater successes. During periods of failure, remember you are in good company. Marilyn Monroe's first contract expired because they told her she wasn't pretty or talented enough to be an actress. She kept plugging away and became one of the most iconic actresses and sex symbols of all time.

So for every apprentice being fired by Lord Sugar, every digital enthusiast whose dotcom has folded after a year, every mumpreneur who doubts her idea can make money – take heart. I'm living proof that failure is the most important ingredient for success.

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