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Currently, South Africa has one of the highest small business failure rates in the world, with the majority of small businesses failing within their first year. Limited access to funding, ineffective cashflow management and the complexity of the country’s regulatory environment are among the leading reasons for this high rate of failure. This is compounded by the fact that the entrepreneurship landscape in South Africa is extremely competitive.

However, for the bold entrepreneurs who understand that the odds are against them and choose to act anyway, the difficult small business environment offers an irresistible challenge.

Failure as an invaluable tool for growth

Many entrepreneurs attest to having an inherent fear of failure – a sense of angst that, if their business idea doesn’t succeed, failure will mean the end of the road. However, if there is any skill that will set an aspiring business owner up for success – it’s learning to ‘fail forward’ – which means to use setbacks as stepping stones and valuable learning curves. Nelson Mandela said it best when he said that “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Some inspiring entrepreneurs who have ‘failed forward’

Most of the South African businesspeople who have achieved excellence in their field, have all experienced failure in one way or another. Business mogul, keynote speaker and best-selling author Vusi Thembekwayo was booed off stage as a young public speaker. Later in life, he invested his life’s savings in a company that closed due to non-compliance and over-indebtedness. Thembekwayo simply gathered his resources and started over. Today he is one of the country’s most successful businessmen and a role model for countess young South Africans.

Sibusiso Leope or ‘DJ Sbu’, as he is most commonly known, reportedly lost his gig at a local radio station, after promoting his energy drink during a company event. He shared his difficulties publicly – posting on social media about his financial struggles and that he had received no income for over a year. This was a humbling time for DJ Sbu, but he went on to become a national household name in music production as well as a successful business owner. In examples such as these, we find practical demonstrations on how ‘failing forward’, by learning from your mistakes, can provide the momentum you need to keep going.

Change the way you think about failure

The first technique that all South African entrepreneurs can use to move forward despite their challenges, is to understand that failure is an inevitability rather than a possibility. Every business owner fails in some way along their journey.  An ill-timed social media post, inaccurate financial projections, neglecting your mental health or the wellbeing of your family, are all key examples of this. But failure doesn’t need to be the end of your journey.

Rather, entrepreneurs need to shift their mindset from seeing failure as a loss, to seeing it as a gain. By succeeding, you’ll uncover what you should continue doing for your business. By failing, you’ll learn what not to do. Either path presents opportunities for business and personal growth, both of which will enable you to develop as an entrepreneur.

Let go of perfectionism

Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg is quoted as saying that: “Trying to do it all and expecting it can all be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment. Perfection is the enemy.” These wise words reflect one of the most common reasons for why people fail as entrepreneurs.  Their need for perfection prevents them from starting out in the first place.

Many successful businesspeople have arrived at the same conclusion. There is never a perfect time or a perfect way to start a business. The most important step an entrepreneur can take is to make a move today. Entrepreneurs should strive to act with intention rather than perfection. When you do this, you will open up a window of possibility for failure to become one of your most valuable assets.

About the Author: Ben Bierman

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Ben Bierman has been our Managing Director since 2015. He joined our company in 1990 and has risen through the ranks occupying various positions ranging from being a management accountant, Head of Information Technology and Chief Financial Officer. Ben is an avid reader, enjoys classical music and being in the outdoors including for hunting trips. He is our go-to-spokesperson for our SME Confidence Index, SME sector policy and trend matters, and business leadership articles.