Article by: Duni Zenaye @habeshaladyboss
Most entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature. So much so that some of us abandon safe jobs with steady paychecks to pursue our dream of starting a business. We believe in staying positive and see better days coming even when there aren’t profits right away. Giving up is not an option. That’s why we remind ourselves of the many entrepreneurs we admire and look up to. They worked hard and just like us, stayed positive. Studying them becomes part of our business journey. We read about their struggles and triumphs and study their approach.
We love success stories. Not only do they inspire us on tough days, but they’re also a great learning resource. We want to do what they did right and learn from their mistakes.
The answer lies with the dead
What if the answers are not found by studying existing businesses that are thriving? What if the important information you need lies with the businesses that failed and no longer exist? One may argue that successful businesses have also failed and that we learn best by studying their failures. Although it does make sense to learn from those who have lived through the dark tunnel and go out on the other side, we can still learn a lot from those who didn’t and died. Some answers can only be found with the dead, not the living.
It may sound morbid but roll up your sleeves and grab your shovel. You have to spend time exploring graveyards and inspecting crash sites of the dead. Why? Simple. We need to know why they never came back.
If this never occurred to you before and you’ve been referring to success stories and didn’t pay attention to the “dead”, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Apparently, it took a mathematical genius named Abraham Wald to figure out that the answers we seek are buried with the dead.
Abraham Wald: The Mathematician that made history
During World War II, Abraham Wald, a Jewish mathematician, left Austria and immigrated to the US. He played an important role in the war by joining a team of statisticians at Columbia university. They had one mission: prevent war planes from getting shot down.
Building planes with armors to prevent bullets seemed the obvious idea. Therefore, they focused on areas that needed armors. After spending time studying the planes that came back from combat, they decided to cover the parts of the planes that repeatedly got bullet holes. One thing the planes had in common was that their engines were intact with no bullet holes. It seemed pretty logical to not cover the engines, right?
In fact, Wald concluded that the engine was the only part of the plane that needed an armor. Why? Because planes that got bullet holes on their engines are the ones that went down. They were not making it back. The planes that got shot on their engines had zero chance of survival.
Those who succeed don’t have all the answers
The moral of the story is that studying the stories of the successful doesn’t always equip us. No matter how tough their journey may have been, they don’t give us any insight on how to survive. Many of us have books and podcasts by entrepreneurs who are experts. They are our guides on the road to success. We eagerly nod and take notes as they explain problems they faced.
We don’t go looking for dead businesses that took one clean shot to the head. Failed entrepreneurs aren’t usually the ones doing podcasts on how their businesses died. When we contemplate starting our own business, we don’t talk to someone who once had a business in their parents’ garage but had to call it quits and get a job. Instead, we buy books about the people who started businesses in their parent’s garage and grew them to multi million dollars enterprises. We study people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Who wants to talk to Martha about the investment she dabbled in that cost her entire life savings? It seems to make more sense to talk to Mary instead, who tripled her income and has money in stocks and in her savings. We want to learn from Mary on how not to be like poor Martha with no savings. The truth is, Martha with no savings and the guy with the dead business in his parent’s garage are most likely the only ones with useful information. They may not have stories on how they dodged bullets. However, if you’re lucky enough to talk to them, you will know exactly what was THE nail that sealed the coffin shut. They know what is the one factor that will kill your business.
Once you study the dead, you will know what is the main factor that will kill your business. You will be more efficient and won’t waste time and money on bells and whistles that are not needed for survival and will only add unnecessary weight.
So, turn off that podcast for a change. Cancel that expensive seminar you were planning to attend next month. Instead, take a cheap tour of the forgotten graves, junk yards and abandoned sites. And while you’re at it, make it a point to take Martha out for coffee. The survival of your business may depend on it.