Be brave enough to embrace failure, then do better

by | Jul 17, 2017

A little more than two months ago, we hosted SPS In:fluence 2017 in Minneapolis, and it was the most successful and largest event we’ve ever pulled off. So many people from so many different parts of the retail supply chain industry came together into two big rooms, making business connections and talking with each other about trying to succeed in these fast changing times. The speakers featured over the course of the two days were just amazing, and so inspiring. I think everyone who attended left with some great ideas for how to improve, and possibly even had the starts of new partnerships forged.

I’m no different. Ever since then, I’ve had a million ideas in my head about where SPS and the retail industry is going and have just been churning thoughts over and over in my mind. Here and there, what was said at In:fluence connects with what’s happening in the retail industry right now. But of all the speakers who presented, most of whom have been in the retail or supply chain business for decades, I keep coming back to what the astronaut said in the final keynote speech of In:fluence 2017.

“Failure is a real opportunity to point out what you did wrong. If you got lucky the first time, you’ll learn almost nothing. Early success is a terrible teacher. Early success just reinforces a lack of preparation and bad habits.”

~ Col. Chris Hadfield

As a culture, we’ve become afraid of failure. Our egos are so wrapped up in this idea that we always have to be successful, all the time, for everything that we do, no matter what. To the point that our fear of failure often prevents us from taking a step forward and doing what we need to do to grow and to be more successful. In far too many cases, we would rather be comfortable with mediocrity or continue with a lackluster “business as usual” than risk any sort of failure, even if the reward would be well-worth the effort.

Failure isn’t shameful and it isn’t a waste; failure has it’s own value. Failure is data – data that can be used as an opportunity to do better next time. And the next time, and the next time until you get it right. By then it’s the best that it can be because you’ve gathered the right data and worked out all the issues needed for success during this learning process that we call failure.

Chris also made a great point that made me laugh a bit, but also was so obvious in its simplicity:

“Visualizing success. To me, that’s just a waste of time. Visualize success? If success happens, that’s great. It’s failure that’s going to happen. Things are going to go wrong. Things are not going to go as planned. Are we ready to face up to those?”

~ Col. Chris Hadfield

I’d go a step further and ask “Are we brave enough to embrace our failures and act on the data we collected?”

Of course, you don’t have to actually make all the mistakes, part of visualizing success should be visualizing and anticipating where possible failures can occur. This is not so that we can convince ourselves that we will fail or try to talk ourselves out of trying, but so that we can plan for what could go wrong to give us the best possible chance at success on our next iteration.

Mr. Hadfield talked about one company related to his industry that isn’t afraid to fail and has found success for it’s troubles: SpaceX. Since NASA has decided to outsource some of its space exploration and rocket programs, SpaceX has been trying to fill the void. Additionally, it’s even been working on solving a problem NASA hadn’t addressed: how do you save the $35 million rocket that falls into the ocean, even when the launch is successful? After several spectacular, publicly viewed failures……

…SpaceX managed to land a giant rocket on a tiny platform in the middle of the ocean during a 50 knot wind, allowing it to be recycled and reused for another launch.

After hundreds of millions of dollars worth of failures, now it’s got the attention of NASA and the U.S. Air Force, with the potential for billions in government contracts and other privately funded opportunities.

I’ll bring up another company more closely related to our industry that reminds me of SpaceX: Amazon. Amazon is the boogeyman of the retail world right now, and to listen to what the media has to say, you’d think it was inevitable that all retailers will fall before them. But in reality, Amazon really only has about three percent of the entire U.S. retail sales (though that may change with the acquisition of Whole Foods). That is a chunk of sales, but still relatively small, it’s not like Amazon is getting 20 percent of all U.S. retail sales or something

Amazon’s market share isn’t what scares other retailers, it’s how Amazon is building its business that scares them. Amazon is willing to try and fail and try and fail again, to be better, faster, cheaper at making consumers happy. And it isn’t all that hyper focused and hung up on making money during the process of finding success.

Just look at what hasn’t worked at Amazon: fashion sites, hotel booking services, an auction site, a payment service to compete with PayPal, a premium diaper brand, the FirePhone, all of which failed. Yet it’s a $430+ billion dollar company that is aiming for the top, while failing left and right as it still makes that climb because when they do succeed, it pays off. Amazon quite simply wouldn’t be the successful company it is today if it considered “fail” to be a dirty word.

“Things always go wrong. No matter if you’re learning to ride a bike, or if you’re starting a business, or just changing software. Stuff is going to go wrong. Always. I don’t even know why we call it going wrong. It’s just going. That’s just how things are. The reality of success or failure is what you choose to do next.”

~ Col. Chris Hadfield

Naturally, failure isn’t something we strive for, but it should be accepted as the price of getting to success. This is where Amazon has internalized a powerful engine of growth and success. Understanding that disciplined execution, coupled with a commitment to experimentation, will create the success they envision. That also means, as Chris Hadfield explains so well, focusing on and preparing for what might go wrong, and learning as you encounter it.

The retail landscape is changing so incredibly fast. Businesses that have been doing the same thing for decades are suddenly finding they have to make changes more quickly than they’ve ever had to in the past, and just as important, that they’re comfortable with. Many are afraid to move forward because they are afraid to fail. As we saw at SPS In:fluence 2017, they’re not alone. Many retailers, brands and distributors are feeling the pinch.

But that’s the beauty of it – no one is perfect at retail right now. That mean’s there’s plenty of opportunity to try out ways – to boldly experiment – to rise above your competition. Your first effort at innovating might fail, but what you do know is that when you are armed with the data and lessons learned for your next attempt, you will be on your way to succeeding like Amazon.

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Peter Zaballos

Senior Vice President & CMO at SPS Commerce
Peter brings more than 15 years of experience in product development, marketing and business development in enterprise, mobile computing and consumer internet businesses. At SPS Commerce, Peter leads the product strategy and marketing programs to support the company’s growth and presence in the retail supply chain market. Additionally, he serves as an advisory board member for two consumer web service firms, and, where he focuses on branding, positioning and message development.
Peter Zaballos


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