Working Strategies: Redefining failure: It’s business, not personal

Definition of failure: “Lack of success.”
Amy Lindgren
The answer was so blunt, I had to laugh. While numerous online references provided more elaborate definitions, I thought MacmillanDictionary.com nailed it with their three-word answer.
I wasn’t perusing dictionaries from idle curiosity. Lately I have found myself irked by business failure. Not the ongoing demise of multiple businesses, although that certainly troubles me. Rather, I’m aggravated by our linguistic insistence that a business which closes has “failed.”
For one thing, the distance between having a business failure and being a failure oneself is microscopic in our blame-throwing culture. Business owners carry enough burden with this difficult decision without having their life’s work summed up in a single, devastating word.
This problem with language to describe the transition from a business operating to not operating has persisted for decades. To complicate matters, we simply have no data on the smallest of businesses — which it turns out are most of them. If they don’t require a license to operate and don’t employ staff, there may be no record of them at all. For those businesses, ceasing to exist is a nearly silent event. (“If a tree falls in the forest … “)
Even when its existence is recorded, most registries seem to have only one descriptor for a business that stops operating: Closed. Or, worse, Failed.
What about those businesses whose owners retired or those that were sold or merged with a competitor? Under our current rubric, even a dot-com startup that makes its owners millions of dollars while being acquired by a tech giant could be said to have failed.
Speaking of dot-coms, don’t get me started on Uber and YouTube and Zillow and Airbnb and countless others that have rarely or never made a profit, while losing billions of investor dollars per year before going public or being swallowed up by the Googles of the world. Yes, they are still in operation. But does that make them less of a failure than a corner store that closes while still solvent?
It doesn’t, and that’s the point. If the definition of failure is “lack of success,” we have a problem. It’s not logical when a company that loses billions is called a success while the company that exits gracefully is called a failure.
This is a situation in which language matters deeply. I have spent years explaining to prospective entrepreneurs who are frightened of the “failure” rates that most businesses actually do succeed, while those that close may be fulfilling an established exit strategy.
I can’t imagine how many would-be business owners have left their dreams on the table when they could have crafted an operation to suit their level of risk. Sadly, I can imagine how many lenders and investors have withheld their dollars under a mistaken perception that most businesses crash. It’s a vicious circle: Businesses do die premature deaths when starved of financial support.
It’s time for this nonsense to stop. As a lifelong business owner, I am tired of the “hero” mantle tossed onto entrepreneurs by local and national politicians whenever it suits them. Business owners are called the lifeblood of the economy and the backbone of America at the same time that they’re being eviscerated by regulations, fees and laws enacted by individuals who have never run a business themselves.
But this isn’t a column about regulation, much of which I actually agree with. It’s about language. Business owners aren’t heroes and they’re not failures, regardless of what happens with the businesses they run. They are individuals with families and goals and, often, an outsized commitment to their communities.
And of course, business owners are facing a crisis right now. With 89 percent of this country’s estimated 32 million businesses operating with 20 or fewer employees, we have a lot of mom-and-pop operations facing a decision: Stay open or close? Ironically, if they close, those owners might not be counted as “unemployed” since they weren’t “employed” in the first place.
This is another bit of language that has not served entrepreneurs well. I’m not the only self-employed person to be hobbled by that label. Ages ago, my profitable business of five years was disregarded by mortgage lenders until I took on a paper route. “Oh,” the lender said brightly, “now that you have a job, we may be able to do something for you.” When a paper route carries more weight than a business as the foundation for a loan, we have a problem.Related Articles

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Thankfully, even in a pandemic, the picture isn’t entirely gloomy. Businesses are also opening right now — although, again, we don’t know how many. I do know this: While businesses that close during the pandemic won’t have failed, it’s likely that something in our system failed them. This is our opportunity to do better.
Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com.

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