Business Failure: Autopsy and Recovery

Failure and setbacks in a business venture can take many forms, from a botched new product or service launch, to cash-flow insufficiency, losing the lease on the perfect storefront or office location, to the appearance of an aggressive new competitor. Business failure is painful and humiliating.

Even if the pre-launch planning and start-up capital are inadequate, significant research and planning and usually a large sum of money (that may have been borrowed) are nevertheless invested with the hopeful intention of bringing a new product, service, or company to life. If things don’t pan out, it’s inevitable that those involved feel crushed and demoralized.

The intricacies of launching and operating a business can cause any venture to falter, even if the founder is not directly responsible for the downfall. The many moving parts of a new venture can cause the founder to overlook essential factors, resulting in a failed launch.

Yet, in some cases,  it’s possible to recover and relaunch after an autopsy has been performed and you and your team (if there is one!) have figured out why things unraveled and how to avoid that problem and maybe others, too, in a second attempt. Common stumbling blocks include insufficient operating capital, an ill- conceived business model, an inadequate assessment of what target customers value and improper pricing.

Many Freelancers and entrepreneurs, after allowing themselves to grieve the loss, are able to move forward with determination and a better plan (and additional resources, most likely) to do much better in the next iteration. Take a look at these common causes of business failure and make note of the lessons to learn:

Unanticipated start-up costs and low sales revenue

Whether you self-financed and bootstrapped your business or borrowed from a bank or investors, you can find yourself in financial quicksand if your projections of start-up costs were underestimated and expectations for customer acquisition were blue-sky optimistic. It’s very easy to rack up big credit card debt and then succumb to panic that leads to making reckless decisions, such as second- mortgaging your home or borrowing from friends and family, as you struggle to successfully launch and create adequate business revenue. Unfortunately, you might find yourself unable to repay as expenses mount and customers are slow to arrive.

THE LESSON IS, do your homework. Thoroughly research the amount of money that will be required to launch your new business, or new product/ service, and make a rational plan for how to acquire the funds, whether you go to the bank, self-finance, ask to borrow from selected family and friends, or take on partners.

Regarding target customers, your first task is to figure out who will buy what you propose to sell, whether products or services. Is there a viable and growing market? Moreover, can you access those prospective customers, something that can be a challenge in the B2B sector.  Realistic financial projections will protect you, especially a Break-Even Analysis, which helps you predict when customer sales can be expected to pull into profit-making territory.

Finally, develop a profit-making business model. You must anticipate the start-up costs, be able to access the targeted customers, you must have the right method of delivering the products or services and pricing must be acceptable to the customers and profitable for the company.

Receivables collection problem

“They’d take sometimes 3 – 4 months to pay and it was killing my cash flow,” she said. “I couldn’t pay my suppliers without difficulty. (The company) refused to pay with a credit card. I was trying to get paid.” Lara O’Connor Hodgson, Co-Founder of the NOWaccount

As counter-intuitive as it seems, a business owner can have orders flying out the door and be totally broke. The problem, as described above by Lara O’Connor Hodgson, is that customers can be slow pay and the difficulty in collecting accounts receivable has put many businesses under.

THE LESSON IS, healthy cash-flow is essential to sustaining a viable business. Investigate the NOWaccount, which guarantees that invoices will be paid on time and in full (both you and the customer must have good credit). Those in a service business (me!) are advised to ask clients who contract to pay a project fee for an assignment to pay 15 % – 20 % of the total fee at the contract signing and link additional payments to project milestones or specific dates (at 30 day intervals, for example). The final payment owed should be no more than 25 % – 35 % of the total fee. In this way, you will receive regular infusions of cash and be much less vulnerable to a payment default by ghosting.

Powerful competitor

Facing a big new competitor is scary, but take a couple of deep breaths and take heart. If you’ve been in business for at least a year and managed to attract customers and deliver your products and services adequately, then you have a chance to hang on and continue with a growth trajectory. Just don’t panic; shift your adrenaline to market analysis instead. In reality, your competitor probably does not offer better quality products or services but rather has resources (like a generous advertising budget) that your organization lacks.

THE LESSON IS to 1.) analyze your competitor’s operation and determine the obstacles you need to overcome or what you need to do differently, i.e. smarter; 2.) refresh your customer knowledge to learn how their expectations and concerns may have changed to make them susceptible to switching their business to the competition; and 3.) avoid competing on price, which is usually an unwise strategy for smaller operations.

Larger companies have more money to work with and that allows them to hire more employees, offer a wider range of products and services, roll-out splashy marketing campaigns, stock more inventory and more flavors or colors and also offer lower prices because they can afford to buy in volume from the wholesalers.

Your defense is to brand your business well and customers reasons to think twice about opting for the competitor. Because no two businesses are alike, you must define for current and prospective customers why they’ll do better by doing business with you.

The heart of branding is defining and constantly communicating a company’s unique selling points, so you must 1.) understand the competition’s unique selling points and 2.) learn to clearly define and articulate your organization’s unique selling points so that you can build on the attributes that set your company apart and potentially make you valuable to customers.

When you understand your competition’s unique selling points and update your customer knowledge to learn as many specifics as possible about what resonates with them, at least theoretically, about the competitor’s unique selling points, you’ll see how to tweak your offerings in ways that reflect your company’s “house style.”

New and small businesses should definitely put an emphasis on excellent customer service. The digital revolution has not meant that customer interactions aren’t essential, even though face-to-face communication has become more limited for many.  To the contrary, customer service is even more vital in today’s business world.  Present a customer first attitude and create a pleasing customer experience. Go the extra mile to surprise and delight and your business will quickly become trusted and loved.

If you have employees, you also want to ensure you are the best employer in the industry. Having motivated and skilled staff will provide benefits for your customers and that will translate into benefits for your ability to successfully compete.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have suffered the frustrating experience of a business failure. For Scott Adams, creator of the world-famous Dilbert cartoons, life’s path wound through many jobs, failed startups, useless patents he applied for and countless other indignities. In his memoir, Adams shares lessons learned about keeping himself motivated, healthy and happy while racking up the failures that ultimately led to his success.

It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”  Bill Gates, Co-Founder and former Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Corporation

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood (1891 – 1942 Anamosa, Iowa, USA) courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting depicts an Iowa farmer and his daughter.