Published: December 29, 2020 | Updated: December 22, 2020

Word to the wise — fail fast

Sholeh Patrick

Sholeh Patrick

Sounds crazy, but it just may be an answer for small businesses trying to stay afloat in these uncertain waters: Adopting the “fail fast” approach, emphasis on fast.

Fail fast is part of start-up culture. Yet lately even long-established small business owners are finding the course-correcting approach of fail fast is keeping them in the black, while others struggle more to cope with economic uncertainties — predicted to last well into 2021.

The idea is adaptability, embracing change rapidly before all the pieces fall. If an idea or business practice isn’t producing desired results quickly, pivot, then try something else; don’t look back. Again and again. No ego involved, no regrets.

In other words, decisively euthanize what isn’t working, collect the data and use what you learn for the next move.

Fail fast doesn’t mean abandon everything or give up on every idea. Certainly not the business itself. It’s more about the smaller issues, the day-to-day practices, the ways owners and managers work with each other, employees, and reach customers. It can be about marketing, product development, delivery or focus.

Examples reported in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other business journals show this works, but only if entrepreneurs really embrace the change side of the fail fast coin — something too many hesitate to do. It seems to be human nature to have trouble admitting we might be wrong or to give up on something we got excited about.

Instead, being excited about what can be learned from failures is a key feature of some of the most successful businesses and people.

I read about a business which offered group classes. When the pandemic hit and classes moved online, interest and attendance dropped off. So the owner quickly changed the model: No more drop-ins. Now, it’s series-based. Miss one and you miss content that the next class builds upon. Attendance soon rose, along with income which surpassed 2019’s when the classes were live.

A small Pennsylvania bagel shop, reported in the New York Times last month, relied on local grocers and walk-in business for stable sales. After March, orders trickled. So instead of waiting or depending on short-term loans, they expanded online and advertised in new ways, spending money when they weren’t making much to market bagels-by-mail.

It paid off. They found a distributor and now sell bagels across the nation. The owner told the Times she’ll keep using the fast fail approach going forward.

You might say fast fail means taking the experimental approach to conducting business. In laboratory experiments, scientists rarely do things one way from start to end. They gather data, form hypotheses, test them, experience failures. They gather more data and form new hypotheses then test those. Sometimes over and over, sometimes for years. But each time, they learn something new. And use what they learned to improve the next round and build a better road to success.

“Each failure contains the seeds of your next success, if you are willing to learn from it.” — Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email: