Failure, success and entrepreneurship

Failure, success and entrepreneurship

It’s not failure, but the fear of failure, that holds back our entrepreneurial culture.

There are two ideas that tend to come up during discussions around entrepreneurialism in Canada. One is the argument that Canadians as a people are not entrepreneurial and are risk-averse. The other is that Canadian business owners have a fear of failure.

That first argument is easy to knock down.

Entrepreneurialism has always been a strong part of our identity. We have a risk-taking, entrepreneurial strand in our cultural DNA that goes back a long way – at least to the days of the fur trade. In our service sector, Canadians actually create new firms at a higher rate than Americans, who are typically thought of as the most entrepreneurial North American nation, according to a 2010 Industry Canada study. 

At OMERS Ventures, we see Canadians embracing entrepreneurship. Since forming, we’ve met with thousands of talented, bright people working in start-ups and invested in amazing companies, such as Hootsuite, Desire2Learn and Shopify.

But while Canadians have a strong affinity for entrepreneurship, there is an obstacle that appears to be holding some of us back from seeing entrepreneurship as a viable and attractive career option.

What’s that roadblock? It’s our fear of failure.

I meet with entrepreneurs regularly, and have done so for the last 25 years of my career. From what I’ve seen, there’s a tendency for emerging Canadian entrepreneurs to avoid discussing their failed ventures. This leaves unexplained gaps in their resumes. It also means they can’t share the deep and meaningful lessons learned from experience, something that many investors will tell you is a critical part of the evaluation process when deciding whether to back an earlier-stage company.

What they – and all of us – need to realize is that having a track record of trying, failing, learning and then succeeding is part and parcel of being a entrepreneur. That’s how entrepreneurship is understood in Silicon Valley, and that’s a view we must embrace in Canada. There are very few successful serial entrepreneurs who do not carry with them the valuable experience of at least one failed start-up.

What can we do to foster a wider appreciation of the power of experience – and, yes, failure – as it relates to entrepreneurship? We need a culture shift, and I don’t see this change as an option. For our young people, bringing an entrepreneurial awareness to their careers is becoming a necessity, as the nature of how we work and the job market changes.

The good news is that many of our post-secondary educational institutions are already taking an important step in this direction by offering formal courses on entrepreneurship. I agree with those who say the study of entrepreneurship should be integrated even earlier into our educational system, including in primary and secondary school.

I know that not every single student will want to launch a start-up. However, as white-collar professions go through the same technology-driven disintermediation that shook up blue-collar jobs, our young people will need to prepare themselves to live in a much different economy. They will need to develop greater career nimbleness, and an entrepreneurial risk profile more in line with recent immigrants to Canada, who are self-employed at a much higher rate than Canadian-born individuals (17 per cent versus 12 per cent in one Statistics Canada report).

There are additional public policy measures we can implement to support entrepreneurship in Canada, of course. But if we are going to bring about a true culture shift, as I’ve suggested above, we need to begin with our educational system. That’s a vital first step.

- By John Ruffolo / Illustration by James Sharp