Dress it up how you want – “unfinished success,” “pivoting,” “learning”- we all fail. There is nothing we can do to stop it – making mistakes is part of life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact, it’s essential for growth – both personal and professional.

Unfortunately, fearing failure comes as naturally to us as failure itself.

“We humans have fear of failure baked into our DNA. If our ancestors stuck around a little longer to gather a couple extra nuts, they might risk being the last one remaining in the group and the first one to get eaten by a nearby predator.” Tim Chaves, founder of ZipBooks, writing for The Next Web

Most of us are so desperate to avoid failure that we have a habit of trying to hold onto things that clearly aren’t working. When we do eventually fail, we end up off far worse than we would have been, had we admitted defeat early on.

If, instead, we can learn to “fail fast,” we should be able to save time, money, and face, and be in a stronger position for pushing on with projects that are working.

“Highly successful people are the ones who have failed the most.” Graham Young, writing for Fast Company

So, what do I mean by failing fast?

Well, what I don’t mean by failing fast is that you should try to fail. I’m not implying that you should put less than 100% into everything you do because there’s always a chance it’s going to fail, so “why bother?”

What failing fast means is learning to identify that moment when something has failed, and doing something about it asap – this might be a marketing strategy, a new hire, or your product itself.

How to Know When You’ve Failed

The first step to failing fast, and transforming that failure into a success, is figuring out when you’ve failed – pinpointing when it’s time to change, or in rarer cases, give up completely.

Your product isn’t a fit for your market

If your product isn’t a fit for your market (i.e. the product isn’t wanted or needed by your perceived target market) failure is almost inevitable.

If you identify the problem in time you may be able to change your product or switch up who you’re marketing to. Wait too long, and you might have to abandon the idea altogether.

Starbucks is a good case for a company that recognized a poor product-market fit, and changed their product accordingly.

When Starbucks first launched they modeled the cafes after traditional Italian coffee shops, complete with bow tie wearing baristas, opera music, and menus written largely in Italian. There were also no chairs, and no non-fat milk.

It quickly became evident that the American market wasn’t after faux-Italian coffee shops. Realizing this, Starbucks responded, and started building the international-ready coffee shop model that we know today.

One way to minimize the chance of poor product-market fit is to launch when you have a MVP (minimum viable product). Don’t wait to find out that the “finished” product doesn’t work – launch as soon as you have a usable one. If it fails, chances are it would have failed regardless of the stage it was at when you launched.

You’ve launched, no one’s buying, and after a big marketing push, nothing changes

Initial poor sales do not necessarily mean it’s time to give up, but it does mean something needs to change. If your initial product launch falls flat and something like a poor product-market fit isn’t to blame, try pushing harder with your marketing (or changing how you’re marketing it). If you’re still not cashing in, it’s probably time to admit failure, and move on.

Your idea doesn’t make money

Are people buying, but you’re not profitable? There might be a good reason for it, like a heavy investment in growth.

If that’s not the case, there’s a problem. Admit “defeat” and either change your product or pricing structure, or call it a day.

Your chosen channels aren’t a fit for your product

Is your marketing failing to generate leads or sales? It might not be your product that’s the problem, but the channels you’re using to market it. Accept that your current channels aren’t working so you can free up the time and budget to invest in something that hopefully will.

Your idea was bad

This is a simple one.

In hindsight, does the idea suck? Do you feel a little embarrassed about putting your name to it? If so, it’s unlikely this one can be saved. Park the project and invest your time elsewhere.

The execution was bad

Did you have a good idea, but something went wrong with the execution? If you’re not sure what I mean, think Friendster.

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The early social network was beaten by the better-executed MySpace and then again by Facebook.

Another example is Google+ – Google’s own (and failed) attempt at dominating the social network market.

If this all feels a bit too familiar it might be time to admit failure and move on (just don’t feel bad about it, since even Google gets it wrong sometimes).

The timing was bad

Many factors have contributed to Facebook’s success but one very important, and very underplayed factor, is timing.

The aforementioned Friendster launched in 2002. We already know it failed in large part thanks to poor execution. It did succeed in something, however: it created a demand for a platform that allowed people to reunite with old friends, and keep in touch with current ones – a demand that Facebook fulfilled.

Facebook launched in 2004. What do you think would have happened if it had launched in 2014, instead?

It’s highly likely it would have come and gone very quickly. Why? Timing. Another site would have come along and filled the space Facebook never did.

Google+ backs up this theory. Sure, it was a pretty poor imitation of existing social networks, but it was also way too late to the party. Anyone that tried to use it would tell you doing so was largely a waste of time, primarily because getting friends or family (outside the digital industry, at least) to make the switch from Facebook was almost impossible. Why go somewhere else, when all your loved ones were already using Facebook?

You don’t enjoy working on your product anymore

Your heart not being in it is a sure sign something’s not right. If this is your business on the line, and you can, sell up. If no one wants to buy, chances are your business wasn’t viable anyway. If that’s the case, move on.

Your gut instinct tells you so

This is another “your heart’s just not in it” kind of scenario. Sometimes we just know something isn’t right. If this happens to you, trust your instincts, and move on.

You’re doing too much

If you’re leading a startup, you need to be prepared to work damn hard (I used to work more than 13 hours a day, 6 days a week), but what matters is why you’re working so hard.

If you’re working all hours of the day because it’s helping to drive your business further forward, faster, then great.

If the only thing standing between you and the failure of your business is the fact that you never stop working, it might be that you’ve already failed.

We had this problem with the now-obsolete ContentMarketer.io. We tried to do way too much – both in terms of what the software did, and the work we had to put in to sustain it. We eventually ditched the bulk of the software, pivoted to providing only email outreach software (the part of ContentMarketer.io our customers used most), and rebranded as Mailshake.

We’re now making more money, and putting in less hours doing it.

How to Transform Failures Into Successes

Knowing you’ve failed is only the start of the battle. Your next job is to start turning that failure into a success.

Figure out why you failed

We’ve run through the signs of a failure, but often being able to spot these signs is easier said than done.

If you know something’s wrong, but you’re struggling to figure out what, try retracing your steps.

Start with the moment you realized you failed and work your way backwards. Be totally honest with yourself about what happened at each stage, and at some point you should have an “aha” moment, and you’ll know what caused you to fail.

Make peace with it

It’s okay to feel bad about failing. In fact, it’d be weird if it didn’t make you feel at least a little uncomfortable. But you still need to come to terms with it, and make peace with it.

We’ve covered this already, but in case it hasn’t sunk in: we all fail and there’s no shame in it.

Accept that you’re only human and that you cannot win at everything, every time. Then, think of the positives – that this is your chance to change things, learn from what went wrong, and do better the next time around.

Figure out what (if anything) you can save

Failure doesn’t have to mean cutting your losses, firing your staff, and closing your business. There are many forms of “failure,” and often, transforming a failure into a success can simply mean switching up what you’re doing.

Take Kleenex. Their product was originally marketed as a makeup remover.

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It was only when women began writing to complain that their husbands were blowing their noses with the “cold cream kerchiefs” (what the tissues were once called) that the brand realized they could be targeting another, potentially even bigger market.

Post-It Notes boasts a similar similar story. They were originally marketed as bookmarks designed to stick in place without ripping the page. Useful? Sure. Enough to make the product the success it is today? Probably not.

Learn from what went wrong

“It’s not about failing. It’s about learning. The purpose of failing fast is to learn and adjust course more quickly.” DZone

We already know that there is no shame in failing. Not one bit. We also know that recognizing and reacting to failure quickly is a good thing. What is a problem is failing to learn from your mistakes, and repeating them in future.

So don’t do that.

Start again

Once you know what went wrong, have accepted it, and understand how to stop it from happening again, it’s time to start over. Whether this means giving up on your business altogether or changing how you market your product or who you market it to, the only way to turn that failure into a success is to start over.

How do you feel about failure? Do you see it as a positive or a negative? Do you make a conscious effort to recognize failure and react to it quickly? Do you have any stories of turning failures into successes (or stories of failures that never got turned around?) It’d be great to hear your thoughts if you want to leave a comment below:

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