Leveraging Failure for Success

“…success isn’t the opposite of failure; it’s a sibling. The two coexist, albeit uneasily much of the time, but necessarily. Many great successes were derived from prior failure, probably as much from prior success.” – The Other “F” Word, John Danner and Mark Coopersmith

I recently picked up the book “The Other ‘F’ Word“, co-authored by John Danner, a trusted adviser and critical player in my entrepreneurship journey. The book discusses the role of failure in entrepreneurship, a taboo topic that does not receive the necessary attention in the business world.  Danner and his colleague Mark Coopersmith define failure as “a mistake or unwelcome outcome that matters.” I’ll use that working definition as the basis of my conversation on failure.

The book prompted me to think about failure in the context of my own professional and personal journey. While I am very happy with the direction of my life, this happiness did not occur without some blemishes — “mistakes” or “unwelcome outcomes” — that define where I am today. In this post, I explore those blemishes in the context of Pasand in an effort to showcase how failure can lead to success.

In the fall of 2012, after working on Pasand for nearly an entire year, we underwent “The Pivot.” “The Pivot,” as I like to call it, is that shift in strategy or product that opens a new, more fruitful market or opportunity.*

During a lunch time conversation with two Pasand Advisory Board members, including Danner, my business partner and I were discussing our challenges in developing an affordable, eco-friendly sanitary pad; we didn’t have the in-house technical skills to develop said product, but more importantly, a growing market for sanitary protection in India was virtually non-existent without feminine health education.

Here came The Pivot. After a year of hard work on our business model and tireless efforts to collaborate with engineers around the world, we completely pivoted our strategy and product. We were no longer in the business of developing a sanitary pad; we were now in the business of developing a women’s health curriculum for adolescent girls.

Lesson 1: The Pivot – although an “unwelcome outcome” – is one of the best things that can happen to a young company. Many successful companies have pivoted (read The Other “F” Word to learn more), and it provides insight into the market that will only position you better for success. Don’t fear The Pivot; embrace it.

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Our original company name (PenniPads) and logo.

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Pasand means “a desirable choice” in Hindi and reflects our mission to provide adolescent girls with health, dignity, and choice through health education.

After The Pivot, we spent two years developing a culturally-sensitive women’s health curriculum for adolescent Indian girls. Our curriculum was comprehensive, which was a source of pride. When we started the beta test of our curriculum, we realized that it was too comprehensive, leading it to fail at its goal of being culturally-sensitive. Within a matter of days, we did a total curriculum revamp, using our already-developed curriculum as a basis for our new iteration.

Lesson 2: Listen to your customers; they’re your biggest asset. Being open-minded can be hard, especially after investing a lot of time and resources into developing what you believe to be the “best product.” Being stubborn will only hurt you, so forget that ego at the door, and embrace iteration. The human-centered design world would have scolded me for developing a product before having a deeper understanding of our customers’ needs. But sometimes, in order to get the best feedback, you just need a product. This is where a minimum viable product (MVP) is essential.

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Pasand’s Question Box enables students to ask questions at the end of every lesson. This serves the dual purpose of ensuring students are understanding the material and highlighting areas for improvement in the curriculum.

Women are uniquely positioned to leverage failure for success. In The Other “F” Word, the authors quote a female executive who noted that “women are more dimensional in problem solving. They’re not afraid to ask for directions, aren’t afraid to ask for help.” I encourage you to leverage the mistakes and unwelcomed outcomes in your life – whether professionally or personally – to build a successful path forward.

*The term “pivoting” is a popular word in the start-up world, which transforms failure from something passive/negative to something active/positive, according to Henry Chesbrough. More on this in The Other “F” Word.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: REBECCA SCHARFSTEINScharfstein_Rebecca - white

Born and raised in Boston, I’m a lover of seasons, pumpkin-based dishes, and Head of the Charles Regatta. In addition to being a proud Bostonian, I enjoy reading, spinning, and traveling. While I’m not enjoying all that Boston has to offer, I run a social venture called Pasand that empowers young women in India to make choices for their own health and dignity through top-quality health education. Previously, I worked in economic consulting where I was able to nerd out on data on a daily basis. In addition to my professional experiences, I’m passionate about serving my community and sit on the Board of Trustees of The Rashi School, an independent Jewish school in the Greater Boston Area. I graduated from Princeton with a degree in Public and International Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School and am pursuing an MPP/MBA from Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School.

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Read more about and from the author: Rebecca’s WiLab Profile