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Successful Mistakes

The best mindset for anyone starting a small business or nonprofit is that mistakes, problems, and failed attempts are completely inevitable.

In the rush to establish a new business, many entrepreneurs craft a short list of the key items they feel are worthy of their full attention: legal and tax setup, office space rental, phone and internet connection, office furniture and equipment, and marketing items. Without a doubt, these components are critical elements of establishing a new venture, but sometimes they can so eclipse the purpose of the business that a sense of drudgery sets in early on. The entrepreneur may find it a defeating struggle just attempting to fulfill daily obligations, let only having enough vision to try to be innovative.

Anyone starting a small business or nonprofit does so with the noble intent of serving others by providing goods or services. But it’s completely legitimate for the entrepreneur to also want success for the business, and therein lies an insidious mindset that can ultimately ending up actually working against the business owner’s diligent efforts. Especially when there are employees or staff involved, the owner of the business can’t help but feel a vested interest in ensuring that every decision is made with the best interest of the organization fully in mind.

The unfortunate byproduct of this seemingly virtuous approach is the subtle embracing of a philosophy of perfectionism. The pursuit of excellence is one thing, but perfectionism is definitely something else. Pursuing excellence in how an organization is structured and operated is a reasonable and healthy approach, providing that it’s always framed in the parameter of the pursuit being a journey. Taking a trip and arriving at your destination are two completely separate items. The “taking a trip” part is all-inclusive – it includes everything from packing your suitcases and putting gas in your car to entering the coordinates of your journey into Google Maps, as well as actually arriving at the destination when it’s all said and done.

The problem ensues when we put our focus only on where we’ll end up. It quickly turns into the ancient question asked by every kid, “Are we there yet?”. Worrying only about the destination will prevent us from enjoying the scenery along the way, and sometimes even the excitement of having to take an unexpected reroute due to traffic or an accident. We might grumble about losing time and having to leave the route we had already carefully preplanned, but it’s those unanticipated detours that can expose us to new discoveries we otherwise would’ve completed missed. “Taking a trip” is really all of those things – everything we worked out completely in advance as well as all the random things we had no idea would happen.

The same needs to hold true when we look at our business pursuits. A relevant and well-known example of this involves the creation of the Post-It Note, one of the most instantly recognizable and widely utilized office supplies in the entire world. This seemingly innocent item got its start in 1968 when an engineer for the 3M Corporation, Spencer Silver, was trying to develop a powerful adhesive for use in aerospace manufacturing. What he instead ended up with was a glue which would allow two items to be temporarily stuck together and then later separated. Although it was a miserable failure when compared to his initial goal, Silver couldn’t help but feel that there still might be some use for it.

For a period of five years, he spoke with other colleagues at 3M and shared documentation of the adhesive he had developed. No one really expressed much interest in trying to find a practical application until a chemical engineer named Art Fry realized that the adhesive might be helpful in solving a problem he had been having. Fry sang in his church choir and frequently marked his place in the hymnal using scraps of paper. Frustrated with losing his bookmarks if the hymnal ever got dropped, Fry realized that Silver’s adhesive might be the perfect solution for temporarily marking the location of each hymn.

When he tried it and saw that the adhesive exactly met his needs, Fry immediately saw the possibilities of trying to find practical outlets for it within 3M. For the next seven years, Fry worked with various colleagues trying to further refine the adhesive and generate interest in it throughout the company. The original formula tended to leave glue residue when attached to a surface, so eliminating that problem was a keep step toward making the adhesive useful on a wide scale. Although various employees throughout 3M had started using the revised adhesive themselves, Fry still struggled to gain the confidence of the company’s marketing division. Finally, nearly twelve years after Spencer Silver had initially failed in his invention of a super glue, the Post-It Note was born. It ended up becoming one of the most successful and globally-used products ever developed by the 3M Corporation.

The best mindset for anyone starting a small business or nonprofit is that mistakes, problems, and failed attempts are completely inevitable. A less than spectacular outcome doesn’t by nature indicate a lack of commitment, intelligence, or perseverance on the part of the initiator. The key to leveraging these seemingly unwanted results is to frame them in the bigger picture – they might not be the destination, but they’re definitely part of taking the trip. Failing to embrace them could mean that hidden, potentially lucrative opportunities end up slipping through the cracks.

Today, most people who reach for a Post-It Note don’t instantly think of the names Spencer Silver and Art Fry, but the combined efforts of these two men ended up revolutionizing the way people approach creating notes for both business and personal use. Had Silver simply scrapped his formula when it didn’t meet his initial expectations, this amazingly useful product may have never been created. In your business venture, especially at the outset when you’re hyper-vigilant about trying to do everything perfectly, don’t get swallowed up in the “I failed!” trap. Recognize that an apparent stumble off of the preferred path may actually lead you into other opportunities that would’ve otherwise passed you by.

No business is perfect, but truly successful entrepreneurs are the ones who focus more on perfecting than perfection. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, and, by doing so, you may find that you’re better positioned than you ever thought possible to achieve truly great things.


Are you interested in learning more about how ValorExcel can help you reach your goals? To start, visit to download a free PDF entitled "Taking Your Organization's Temperature". It'll guide you through a quick analysis of the health of your organization, and it can be real eye-opener as to what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. Also, make sure you check our recent video on YouTube by clicking HERE. These videos discuss and teach practical methods to help you reach success.

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