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We Ask Young Entrepreneurs: What Did You Learn From Your Biggest Mistake?

We asked some successful young social entrepreneurs: "What was your biggest mistake, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn?"    


Don't Overwork Yourself

Ben Simon

Founder and Executive Director, Food Recovery Network

React Faster, Stand Stronger

React Faster, Stand Stronger

Isabel Medem

Co-Founder and CEO, x-runner

February 4, 2015 | 3141 views

The biggest mistakes I made as an entrepreneur all lead back to a combination of underestimating the urgency of a situation and making myself feel smaller and less powerful than I should have felt.

As an entrepreneur one is used to taking risks, to making mistakes, to constantly trying to improve your concept, and also to defying many odds. These challenges are what drive us to continue; they make us work harder every day.

But one must not forget that the environment an entrepreneur works in can be a lonely one, too, with very real, non-glamorous problems that you often have to solve on your own. In my case, these problems directly affected the survival of my business – re-negotiating rent, hiring and firing staff, complex legal issues, etc. – so it was crucial to work them out.

A specific example is that of a deal gone bad with a toilet manufacturer in Peru. Back in 2013-2014 we were still designing and producing our own toilets (we now collaborate with the leading dry toilets manufacturer, Separett). We had just signed a contract with a local manufacturer to produce 150 toilets for us within a set time frame. Given that the technology he was going to apply was relatively new, and given that our toilets were rather extraordinary, both parties were aware of possible delays.

Very soon the first setbacks occurred, accompanied by a lack of transparent and proactive communication. Problems continued to grow: nothing was advancing, excuses were mounting, and no toilets were being produced. The story ended with us hiring a lawyer to help us pull out of the deal, leaving us with no toilets and no alternatives at hand. We had lost six valuable months in which we should have added at least 150 clients.

My mistake as an entrepreneur, or as a manager, was to take too long to react and end the deal. If I had reacted earlier and more forcefully, it could have saved us a lot of time and money. My reasons for not acting were that I just could not believe that the person I was dealing with was so unreliable. I wanted to believe his excuses and deadlines, and I was more interested in reaching agreements rather than arguing and fighting.

It was also difficult to keep track of him, because the production plant was far outside of Lima and driving there every day was impossible. Another reason was that I felt committed to our agreement and uncertain about how to find a company that could do the job instead of him. I also felt that I was too small a client for him to take our complaints and threats seriously.

What I learned from this episode was that I have to stay focused on my main goal – which is currently to reach more than 500 client households. All the decisions I make, all the conversations I have, all the suppliers and clients I deal with, and my entire team – they all have to fall in line with this goal. In trying to solve complex problems, a secondary goal like maintaining good relationships with suppliers can sometimes become prioritized over the final goal of selling more toilets to more people.

I also learned that regardless of how I feel about the size and importance of my business, my concerns are always valid, especially when they threaten my business. If I cannot solve them on my own, it is good to seek help – in this case, by hiring a lawyer. Since this experience I’ve worked on reacting faster and standing stronger on my two entrepreneurial feet.


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