Kent Sanders | Unlock Your Creative Potential

Unlock Your Creative Potential

What I Learned from 3 Embarrassing Business Failures

If you’re like me, you’re probably reflecting on the events of this past year—your highs and lows, your successes and failures. And if you’re especially like me, you are prone to beating yourself up for your failures.

After many years of feeling guilty for my mistakes, I am finally learning to see my failures as stepping-stones to success. Some of my biggest failures over the last two or three years have involved business decisions that didn’t go quite as planned.

Although I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels, I learned several valuable lessons from these experiences. There is a real value in looking at our failures from an objective and analytical standpoint. If we can take the emotion out of a situation and see it for what it truly is, we can learn a great deal from it.

Let me emphasize that the mistakes I’m sharing have nothing to do with the businesses or organizations themselves. Many others have been involved in these specific business areas and done quite well. However, these were mistakes for me, for reasons I’ll explain. Not only that, they were embarrassing because they showed my rush to judgment and lack of due diligence on more than one occasion.

As I share these, I hope it will be an encouragement to reflect on your own failures and learn from them.

Failure #1: Multi-Level Marketing

In the summer of 2014, I borrowed a little over $2,000 to purchase a membership in a multi-level (MLM) marketing company that sold health products. Several people in my extended family had joined the business and loved the products. One person I knew was doing very well in the business, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

However, I didn’t think it through very well. Although I loved the products, I was a total failure when it came to marketing and spreading the word about my new business. I felt very awkward about talking to family and friends about the business, although people were generally gracious and kind.

I didn’t have a problem with the structure of an MLM business, but I just wasn’t cut out for that type of direct sales work. It didn’t fit my personality at all.

Why I did it: I thought it would provide a decent side income.

Why it failed: I didn’t count the cost before joining the company, and my personality wasn’t suited to network marketing.

What happened when I quit: I didn’t recoup the money, but I honestly breathed a huge sigh of relief because I had so much anxiety.

What I learned: Make sure you are well-suited to a business before you get involved in it.

Failure #2: Part-time church job

In the Fall of 2014, soon after I quit my MLM business, I agreed to take on a part-time job helping coordinate worship volunteers at my church. My church has two campuses, and at that time the smaller campus (where we were involved) was going through some transitions. Since my background is worship ministry, I agreed to coordinate the volunteers in this ministry area.

It’s not that I didn’t want to help—it’s that I truly didn’t have the time that the job required, and I should have known better. But instead of having the courage to say “no,” I said “yes” because I wanted to help, and I truly cared about the worship ministry.

As the job required more and more time, I started to become resentful in my spirit. The job was getting done, but my attitude was going downhill. (That’s unusual for me because I’m almost always an upbeat and positive person.) It came to a head one day when I found myself having a fairly heated discussion with our campus pastor over some worship issues that were, in retrospect, very minor.

Looking back, I was in the wrong because I was making mountains out of molehills. But because of my stress level, I was emotionally out of sorts and irritable. I realized that I wasn’t doing the ministry, or myself, any favors by continuing in the role.

Just for the sake of clarity, let me emphasize that this was in no way the church’s fault. It is a fantastic church, and the leadership was completely supportive of me in this role.

Why I did it: I wanted to help the ministry navigate a transition period.

Why it failed: I was quick to say “yes” to a commitment instead of considering whether I really had the time to do it well.

What happened when I quit: Here’s the interesting part. As soon as I quit, a young man in our ministry stepped up to fill my shoes. He did such a great job that our main campus hired him as a full-time tech team member!

What I learned: Sometimes quitting is the best thing you can do because it gives another person a chance to step up and lead.

Failure #3: Fulfillment by Amazon

In the summer of 2015, I was introduced Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). This type of Amazon selling allows you to ship your items to Amazon, which them fulfills and ships the orders to buyers. It sounded like a win-win to me, and I knew many people were doing very well with FBA, so I decided to give it a shot.

I started by selling hundreds of my own books. I knew it was going to take some work, but I wasn’t prepared for the immense time it took to scan, label, organize, and ship the books. I was just starting out, so of course there was a learning curve, and I was OK with that.

However, when my books began to sell I was pretty disappointed in the huge cut that Amazon takes from your sales, not to mention my own expenses. After more research, I realized that the most of the truly successful FBA sellers were either 1) high-capacity sellers, or 2) selling high-priced items. It was going to be difficult to become either one of these.

If you’re tempted to call me naive, go ahead … because I truly was. I thought that making a decent side income on Amazon would be easier than it actually was. By the time all was said and done, I made less than $1,000 from this endeavor. And I devoted most of that summer to work on my FBA business.

Why I did it: I wanted to make a decent side income.

Why it failed: I didn’t realize how much work it was going to take to make it a viable business.

What happened when I quit: Nothing. I sold my supplies and simply stopped sending in shipments to Amazon.

What I learned: It’s vital to perform your due diligence before launching into a new business area.

The unvarnished truth

Let me get down to brass tacks. Do you want to know the real reason I got involved in the MLM and FBA businesses? It’s not because I wanted to make a side income. No, the real reason is that I was afraid I wouldn’t be successful with a writing-related business.

The blatant, unvarnished, embarrassing truth is that these businesses were more or less an excuse to avoid facing the truth that perhaps I couldn’t be a successful writer. If I could distract myself with side businesses, I would never have to face that cold reality.

I would have much rather put my efforts into writing, speaking, coaching, editing, and so forth. But I didn’t have the confidence I could make it work. So instead, I let myself get sidetracked with these other pursuits where I wasted an enormous amount of time and energy.

It truly breaks my heart when I think how much further I could be today if I had focused on my writing instead of those businesses. The end result is that today, I am focused on my writing and am going full-steam with my efforts to make it a viable business.

I have made some truly dumb mistakes in my life, and these are only a few of them. But they have taught me to stay focused in my areas of strength, and to avoid getting distracted by the lure of an easy path. I hope you can learn from my failures and avoid doing the same in your life.

What are some mistakes you have learned from in recent years?

About Kent Sanders

I help people unlock their God-given creative potential. I live with my wife and son in St. Peters, MO. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or YouTube.

  • When the navy told me after my second to last flight before getting my wings that they weren’t willing to let me go any further, it hit hard. I felt a mix of shame and humiliation. A straight A student, varsity athlete in high school and engineering honors grad in college I couldn’t believe what happened.

    Sure, I could write it off to any number of things. But in the end I felt like a failure, and for the longest time I didn’t even want to talk about it. Now years later I finally realized that sometimes you succeed and sometimes you learn.

    Failure’s one of those things that we have to unlearn from traditional education. In reality there are only things that work out – and lessons. It’s easier to say in hindsight that you “shoulda” focused on writing, Kent, but if you hadn’t gone through the experience, that’s just all ideas and theory.

    • Thanks John — that is an incredible way of framing it: sometime you success, and sometimes you learn. Either way, you “win” so to speak. I had never thought of it that way.

      As a teacher, I sometimes have students who fail courses for one reason or another. It is hard to get them to think of it as anything but a failure, and honestly, to not transfer that sense of failure to themselves personally. I think that’s human nature.

      I absolutely, definitely learned some valuable lessons from these experiences. In one way or another, they all pointed me in the right direction. Sometimes closed doors are the best thing that can happen … though it feels bad at the time!

      John, I would love to hear more about your Navy experience. Have you written about this anywhere?

      • y, I’ve written here and there about my experiences. Here’s a collection on LinkedIn –
        I need to do an updated version on my blog!

        • Thanks John – I read through the posts you linked to and loved them! You are a great storyteller. I have always wanted to get my pilot’s license and your posts reminded me how much I want to fly.

          • Appreciate the kind words – it’s taken me years to final realize that storytelling is simply a skill we need to develop. Part of me wishes that I realized this years ago and started sooner! 🙂 But this seems to be a theme in my life..

            I definitely urge you to give flying a shot. The challenge is actually financing the lessons – and then to keep
            flying (there are minimum hours & landings to stay current).. unless
            you’re John Travolta or Harrison Ford, of course.

            You might think about giving soaring a try. It’s slightly more affordable but a little less available. What it really helps is getting a feel for seat of pants flying.

          • Sounds like it’s something I will hold off on for a little while until I have more time to pursue it. I do have a friend who has an ultralight–those look interesting!

          • Maybe it’s my military / aerospace engineering training but I have no desire to jump out a perfectly good airplane, aka skydiving, and little interest in ultralights, which remind me of our first attempts to fly by jumping off cliffs! 🙂

  • Michael Scanzello

    Kent I applaud you are being vulnerable to share failures when most are happy to show successes. That is what attracted me to this post in the first place was the juicy details of your failures. It is great you learned from them and moved on. I had a similar bout with direct sales and an MLM. I agree with John it is in the failures you learn, grow, and become what you were not beforehand. Perhaps wiser, at least more interesting and able to relate to!

    A mistake I have learned from is in trying to give constructive feedback to others who don’t solicit my advice. I even now have to hold my tongue to not offend people. I learned when someone truly wants to get honest feedback they will request it, not wait for me to offer it when not wanted.

    • Michael thanks for commenting. I have many more stories of my failures … there’s more where that came from, ha. 🙂 With your comment about giving feedback … it is really hard to hold your tongue sometimes when you see what can be immediately improved in a situation. But you’re right–the person has to be ready to receive it.