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Getting comfortable with failure as a female business owner

Failure. It’s a big icky word that conjures up images of people looking at us and shaking their heads, aghast. I want to talk about failure today because I see so many women holding back from the proverbial limelight and shrinking their missions in order to avoid “failure”. Am I going to talk about failure in the context of someone who considers themselves to have avoided failure? Fuck no – you should know me better than that!

In 2017 I quit my 9-5 job without a concrete plan; I knew I needed to get out, had just finished my Nutritional Therapy diploma, had been tinkering with starting up a vegan chocolate business and reckoned I could go freelance quite easily. So, I had options. Plus, I was incredibly fortunate that my partner had a solid enough job to support us both financially whilst I figured things out.

Neon sign against white brick walk saying People Fail Forward To Success

The landscape of my failures as a female business owner

I launched a nutritional coaching programme to tumultuous tumbleweed. The clients I had worked with for free during my training, unsurprisingly, weren’t all that interested in paying once I was qualified and because they hadn’t invested financially, they struggled to make the big changes needed to see impact in their health. Nutritional Therapy lost its shine for me before I even launched my programme so I felt distinctly uneasy about making a big song and dance out of it when I did launch the programme.

I struggled with bitty freelance jobs before getting a great project via a friend working with an agency. I didn’t know my worth, said yes to any projects that came my way and was working from a place of fear. I came to depend on the income I was getting from my main client and when that project came to a close, foundered.

I co-created a beautiful ethical, handmade chocolate brand with my partner. We launched our online store in April 2018 and sold hundreds of bars over around 18 months. We were featured in local press, had some gorgeous aligned stockists and our creations were included in subscription boxes. “Hold on now Lea”, I hear you saying, “this sounds a lot like what we might call a success story”. It’s true, there were a lot of wins to this business; there are also a whole bunch of buts.

We invested a lot of our own money into starting this venture. In terms of profit margins, the product stacked up ok – until you account for the amount of time we spent on it – if you wanted to measure by hourly rate, it would not be pretty. Every bit of the work, we did ourselves, with the lion’s share falling to me as the one without a full time job. Hours were spent deliberating over the most ethical packaging, sourcing the highest quality and kindest ingredients and developing a range of products that most people seemed to love.

I forced through health issues, ignoring the messages of my body, to spend days deep cleaning the kitchen, running inventory, standing in the same position hand tempering (with a mixing bowl and a spoon) every batch of chocolate in the hot summer months (a painstaking process, if you haven’t tried it), managing social media to drive sales, packaging up orders, travelling to the post office and having the same debate every time about the size of our mailing boxes.

It would have been possible for us to make the business more profitable but we would have had to compromise; giving away some of our autonomy, reneging on elements of our ethics or “selling out” in some other way were options. In order to reach more of our ideal customers, more effectively, we needed to change our processes, invest in packaging and upscale in a big way. We simply didn’t have the funding, or the will, for this and realised that having a chocolate business wasn’t really our big picture intention.

When we sat down with our vision board, we saw clearly that what we were looking to create, really, was an off grid, low impact lifestyle where we could spend more time outdoors together. And the truth about our beautiful chocolate business, was that it might never get us to that vision; in fact, because I was working on 3 businesses at once, there was a good chance it was hindering us more than helping as it took so much of my energy/time/focus. This April we made the decision to let that business go dormant.

Woman with arms held high as coloured powders burst around her

I “failed” as a female business owner, here are some of the things it taught me:

  1. Sometimes a safety net encourages us to play small and it can take away our sense of personal responsibility in growing our intentional businesses.
  2. “Figuring things out” is a baptism of fire and nearly always takes much longer than you originally account for. You are always going to be figuring things out. Searching for THE THING will waste your energy; you will learn, grow and your vision will constantly evolve.
  3. Being a female business owner is an intense rollercoaster and it highlights aspects of yourself that you might not otherwise encounter. You learn the things you genuinely are excited by and the things that make you want to carve your eyeballs out with spoons rather than do.
  4. No issue will be more strongly illuminated than your own sense of self worth. Having to price products or services is a minefield that every female business owner that I’ve met finds distinctly uncomfortable. This often leads us to undervalue ourselves and under charge. It also leads us to say yes to things we really mean “no” to. Which means we resent ourselves and the work we are doing.
  5. Having a supportive network of people doing their own thing too is bloody essential; you learn from each other and funnel work each other’s way. Attempting to get by alone without tapping into support networks or “who you know” will hold you back. Yes, what you are doing has merit and you will be judged on that – but only if the people it’s for know it exists!
  6. Refusing to compromise is ok sometimes. When you are committed to staying true to your instincts and ethics, then refusing to compromise is about integrity. Being pushed to see where you won’t compromise is a powerful and enlightening process that not many people experience.
  7. Returning to your big vision regularly is essential. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutiae of running your business on a day to day basis and forget what you are doing it for. You may even find yourself half way down a road to a destination you’re not committed to.
  8. You are the most essential asset your business has. That does not mean giving everything you have to your business. That means your business needs to work for you; dismissing your own health in order to do all the things your business needs is a major mistake.
  9. We need to define success ourselves, according to what feels good to us, rather than because we think other people will see us differently. Is a client moving on truly a failure? What if that client has been empowered by working together and is now more confident to do things themselves, isn’t that actually a success? So your venture hasn’t brought in the money you hoped; but you’ve learned new things during the process and discovered new ways of doing things – isn’t that a success?

The truth about failure, is that it is very much an external projection of how we think others see us. Because, of course, no one can truly know whether you have been a success or failure as you set your own measures for this and weave your own public story about it. But as female business owners (or wannabe female business owners) one of the biggest fears we have to overcome is our fear of failure.

Are you dimming your light for fear of “failure”? Stop feeling like you are “failing” at telling your story and connecting with more of your ideal clients – it’s a trainable skill and help is at hand! I help gorgeous heartled business owners like you, tell your story, your way. Check out the packages for support on offer.

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