This first appreared on The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network under the title, “The five stages of grief for a failed social entrepreneur: Dan Morrison talks about the five stages of grief following a failed social enterprise, and how to recover your motivation and start again.”
Failure comes with a stigma. When Citizen Effect was failing, I’d enter a room and my ego would notice every person looking at me and I could hear them saying, “That’s Dan Morrison, he’s the one that founded Citizen Effect… and failed” or, “Yeah, how do you get over $1 million from Eric Schmidt, the Knight Foundation and Humana and fail?” Which is a very good question. Why did I fail to turn Citizen Effect into a self-sustaining social enterprise?
The one thing everyone says to a failed entrepreneur is, “learn from your mistakes.” But honestly, every time I heard this, I wanted to punch them in the face. That is because I was working through what I call the five stages of a failed entrepreneur’s grief.
Stage 1: denial
“I didn’t fail, I just want to move on to the next thing. If the market isn’t ready for my amazing innovation, screw them, I’m done wasting my time.” That takes a while to get over, but usually happens when you see similar organisations succeeding. I saw Kickstarter, Indiegogo, crowdrise, Razoo and others all seemingly making it. That is a bitter pill to swallow, but its better to take it early; otherwise, the bitterness will own you.
Stage 2: blame
“If my funders would have just done what they promised me, we would have won!” When an investor or funder jumps on board, they always say, “we will connect you to other investors.” But, what an entrepreneur hears is, “I love you man. I’m going to get all my rich friends to cut you a large cheque tomorrow!” Well, it doesn’t work that way and nor should it. You have to earn those introductions by leveraging their money into success.
Stage 3: self-flagellation
“I suck! My ideas are rubbish and I am totally incapable of running my life much less an organisation.” Unfortunately, this pity party is where most people stay. Thankfully for me, I have a great wife, three amazing children, a wonderful mother and mother-in-law, and friends completely intolerant of pity, who were mercilessly telling me to get off my arse and start having fun again.
Stage 4: learning
Lessons learned. What sounded so trite before becomes the social entrepreneurs strength. The first six months after people hear you have failed, they ignore you because they don’t know what to say (or more likely don’t care) or send you hollow messages of support.
After the six months morning period, the phone starts ringing. First it is a friend or two that want to know if they can salvage anything from your social enterprise wreckage – talented employees, code, funding connections, etc. Then people who you met at SOCAP or SXSW or some other social enterprise conference call to see what you are doing and if you want to join them. And then the crazies start calling and they call often. The conversation starts with an, “I have an idea I want to run by you…” and usually ends in “good luck with that.” But inevitably, a few of the craziest ideas keep you up at night. And those get a call back. And then you become an advisor and then a contract to figure out the business model, or branding, or fundraising, and then you take an equity stake and you’re off the races, again.
Stage 5: picking yourself up and starting again
Your next social enterprise. It may not be yours, but once a social entrepreneur, always a social entrepreneur. Once someone looks at the world and feels the need to change it, they cannot go back. My stage five is reminding myself that I have three young boys and I need to get to work on leaving them a legacy we can all be proud of.
Dan Morrison (@DanCitizen) is the chief do good officer at Imagine Social Good, a strategy and marketing firm that partners with social innovators to realise the change they want to see in the world. Previously, Dan was the CEO and founder of Citizen Effect, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform for social good projects around the world.