Brower: What’s all this talk about ‘failing well?’ |

Brower: What’s all this talk about ‘failing well?’

Patrick Brower
Grand Enterprise Initiative

Buzz words and catch phrases tend to abound in the world of entrepreneurship and business start-ups. One of the more recent buzz phrases cropping up in the literature is the phrase “failing well.”

This phrase seems like an oxymoron if there ever was one. It raises lots of questions for that reason. After all, failing is generally not considered to be a good or healthy thing, especially in in the world of business. So how in the heck can a person or business do such a “bad” thing and be “well” in the process?

Here’s how.

In the course of my meetings and dealings with 350 clients in Grand County over the last six years, I’ve had several new businesses or existing businesses as clients that have either closed, moved away or sold. About 20 percent of our clients who moved forward with an idea or existing business fall into those categories.

And while it’s tempting to call all those events failures, the truth is that most of them are not failures in the traditional sense of the word. They are, rather, closures or sales that have taken place because they were in the best interest of the owners. That’s right, many times such events happen in the business for good and even healthy reasons.

Here are a few examples. One client of ours had a small restaurant operation that we started with a very clear understanding of what the business could afford in rent. Aside from the pay to the owner and operator, the rent was the next-largest expense in the cash flow projections. And based on the admittedly limited business that would take place at this small establishment, keeping the rent in line was critical.

Lo and behold, one day I drive by and notice the place has closed after two years of fairly successful operations. At first I felt like there had been a “failure,” but once I talked to the owner, I knew it was not really a failure. It was a good business decision. She told me that the landlord had announced a significant rent increase. The restaurant owner double-checked her books and our projections and realized she would be cutting into her pay and creating additional stress with such an increase.

So she closed. You can decide: A failure or a good business decision? I think it was a good business decision, from which she learned a lot. And now she’s contentedly working elsewhere while looking for her next opportunity.

That’s an example of “failing well.”

Another way to “fail well” takes place when too much business simply overwhelms the owners. Perhaps the owners can’t find good help. Or the reliability of a supply chain for their products is in doubt, or the stress of owning and operating a business is just too much. So they decide to sell. Then the new owners decide to absorb the old business into a new one or they change the name and a business seemingly vanishes.

Is that a failure? No, not really. The former owners are happy to get out of the venture with their sanity and the new owners absorb and expand the business on terms and conditions that the previous owners simply could not afford and carry out.

The former owners are happy and have learned while the new owners have taken advantage of an opportunity. That’s an example of “failing well.”

The truth is that most entrepreneurs out there fail in business a few times before finally “succeeding.” And as we all know, success is in the eyes of the beholder. It can be a subjective thing.

So sometimes failing well isn’t failing at all.

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He provides free and confidential business management coaching for anyone who wants to start or expand a business in Grand County. He can be reached at 970-531-0632 or at

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