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The Importance of Failure

Pages 24-25

As entrepreneurship is increasingly looked to as a tool for economic development, the question for Detroit is how best to support the efforts of individuals to innovate while also ensuring a support network exists to nurture their efforts.

“There’s a great deal of effort already underway with many compelling programs focused on entrepreneurship,” said Peter Gardner, founder and CEO of Startgrid, a web-based, collaborative platform for entrepreneurs.  “I think what’s fascinating is – not just in the state of Michigan, but throughout the country and arguably throughout the world – the amount of money and focus that is being applied to making communities conducive to entrepreneurship.”

Detroit is striving to create a culture of collaboration surrounding its growing entrepreneurial community.  While the entrepreneur is often the individual pushing their idea from concept to reality, their support network is an essential part of sustained success.

“If there aren’t other people in that community who have been there ahead of you, it’s really difficult for you to understand the complexities of all of the things you need to know as an entrepreneur,” said Jason Sosa, who founded IMRSV in Grand Rapids in 2009 and still serves as CEO for the consumer analytics company.

In their view of Detroit, and by extension Michigan, entrepreneurs are bullish on the state’s ability to continue to curate a supportive network as other fundamentals key to entrepreneurship are already in place.

“Work ethic is an absolutely critical component of success and the people of Detroit by and large have that.  It’s just really about taking an optimistic point of view about the future and how you can create it, and then embracing the risk that is inherent with that,” said Adam Lowry, co-founder of Method, which sells inspiringly designed and environmentally safe cleaning products.

The approach to risk, and even out-and-out failure, is distinctly different in the entrepreneurial community.  Standard, risk-averse, business practice is something pointed to as encumbering entrepreneurial development.

“Bankers look at things with the mindset of ‘How can I not lose?’ and that type of mentality is probably the most detrimental to this culture of innovation, culture of risk taking,” Sosa said. “It’s in those moments of failure that you begin to ponder, and you are able to reinvent yourself.”

Though still counterintuitive in some circles, the ability to fail is looked to as essential for progress in entrepreneurial pursuits.

“First of all, you recognize that innovation inherently means you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before; you accept that innovation requires risk,” Method cofounder Eric Ryan said.

The idea that lessons of past failure serve as a guide to future success is widely accepted in entrepreneurial circles.  The hope is that this viewpoint will continue to radiate out to policy makers and business leaders alike.

“If you want to be an entrepreneur … you have to accept the fact that failure is part of the process,” Gardner said.

“What ultimately might be a successful company or a successful product, inevitably had small failures that happened along the way – that is the learning process.  Successful entrepreneurs tend to be particularly good at responding to that feedback, iterating and having the persistence to manage through those failures,” added Gardner.

Detroit’s struggles have not dulled optimism for the city from an entrepreneurial perspective.

“I think Detroit itself needs to reinvent what it means to be a Detroiter, (to being someone who) can embrace innovation and know that inherent in that is risk and failure along the way.  I think that’s what’s going to ultimately create the economic opportunity that everyone wants,” Lowry said.

This cultural change may be already underway as Detroit’s increasingly cohesive and supportive business environment grows in key areas tied to entrepreneurial successes including:  support from local educational institutions; availability of incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces; and access to funding, mentoring, and guidance.  The Detroit Regional Chamber is also working to foster entrepreneurial growth.  The Chamber announced its partnership with Startgrid at the 2014 Detroit Policy Conference in February.  Along with the launch came news of a $100,000 grant from the New Economy Initiative.  In the long run, both the Chamber and Gardner hope to grow Startgrid into a national network that builds support and connection throughout wider entrepreneurial communities.

Noah Purcell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.