At least The Apprentice brings failure out of the shadows – it can be the start of success

Models for business? BBC/Boundless/Jim Marks Photography

Series ten of The Apprentice and another batch of boardroom hopefuls have proffered themselves up to Lord Sugar as wannabe entrepreneurs. The majority fail, publicly and to great embarrassment. We’ve watched as they endure Lord Sugar’s decree and make their way to the waiting taxi and a swift exit.

They’ve signed up for this, and the inevitable “You’re fired” should come as no surprise. Opportunity lies in their exposure, and you’d hope they’d weighed up the risks. But what for the individuals who’ve risked it for real: what does entrepreneurial failure mean for them?

Reality TV vs real life

Outside of reality TV, there is no fun side to people getting fired. It’s not something we talk about readily, much like the failure of a business. But failure is a daily feature of business life and despite the huge emotional impact for individuals and the ripple effect around them, it’s so rarely discussed. It still carries a stigma that means most suffer in silence.

There’s a common conception that failure is part of the entrepreneurial journey, par for the course for people who can cut it, before they bounce back or make it. The idea prevails that those who are truly entrepreneurial can overcome crises and challenge – those who can’t might be better suited to something else.

Human empathy for those going through the collapse of a business is often replaced by finger pointing and blame. We only really accept failure in entrepreneurship and business as being useful to future endeavours, and it’s only typically spoken of as a stepping stone to greater success.

These stories stem from successful entrepreneurs who look back fondly on how failure has made them the success they are today. They can afford to take this stance, partly because it’s all in the past, and partly because they’ve more than proved themselves since.

Learning from failure

Very few entrepreneurs speak publicly at the time they’re going through it. Research supports the popular opinion that there is greater learning potential from failures than successes, but there are so many barriers to this actually happening.

Learning typically requires reflection and time to absorb what has happened. For entrepreneurs who are experiencing failure in real time it’s not always easy to do. They may not want to dwell on something that hasn’t worked out, preferring to move on and try to forget about it. It might simply be too painful, embarrassing or frustrating to think about, or difficult to comprehend. Sometimes they might have acted in ways that they don’t want to reflect on or admit to. Or quite simply survival might be all they can focus on.

For all these reasons and more we have little evidence of how people cope with failure and how some recover and restart in business. For a long time, much has been based on hearsay. But a growing number of researchers including myself are looking into this.

Processing the experience

My interest lies in the real time experiences of entrepreneurs who face failure. How do they make sense of what they are going through? We’ve found that while there is value from moving on, it is important to process what happened and that people separate the positives from the negatives in their experience of failure. Often people have a lot to celebrate, even when their project didn’t work out – be it the idea itself, the money that was made, the jobs it provided.

Despite the short-term discomfort of having to process the negative elements of their experiences, people found it valuable in the long term, as it helps develop positive emotions, which ultimately help when it comes to moving on and in their next venture.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that we typically think of entrepreneurs bouncing back in terms of them starting another business. But plenty of people don’t. Deciding entrepreneurship is not for them is as valuable as starting a new business. The experience is not wasted and learning from the event can still be applied to future careers.

As entrepreneurship is widely taught in schools, colleges and universities, it’s important that curricula start addressing the issue of failure more. Talking about it would be a start but it’s also important to teach how to bounce back from failure. Otherwise our entrepreneurs of the future will have little idea what to expect and no insight into recovery. 

So, the fact that The Apprentice brings failure into the open is a good thing. Now we just need to address the reality rather than the edited version.