Kehlan Kirwan looks back at the heartbreak of business closure

In this week’s column, Kehlan Kirwan looks back on a personal experience as he recalls the heartbreak of a small business closure. He argues that failing is something that every business should be prepared for    

In business, they say it is better to have loved and lost than to have not loved at all. But there is still no escaping the pain.

Around the startup scene, you hear a lot about “failing fast” and “failing quicker” in business. The premise being that you stop wasting your time on something that isn’t working. That you learn to let it go. It’s an interesting point. If something isn’t working, then why keep doing it?

This is something I learned the hard way, something that has stuck with me since I began to get submerged in the startup scene within Ireland.

Six years ago I came back from England to start a business magazine. Inside the impetuousness of youth, I found something that I was sure could work.

We weren’t going to be like other magazines, we were going to be different.

We’d have the physical copy of the magazine in the shops with the digital side producing original video and audio content. We were going to link the digital with the physical, allowing people to watch the interview they read about in the magazine. In short, it was going to be amazing.

Alas, it turned out not to be that way. Starting a business which relies heavily on an advertising revenue during the middle of the harshest recession in history probably didn’t help. Companies weren’t spending and nobody wants to be the first to bat on something new.

In retrospect, the writing was on the wall from an early stage. Production costs were barely being paid.

The use of digital and print content was only starting to take hold in publishing. Digital needed to be just as important as the physical copy of the magazine.

Advertisers were caught in headlights when you approached them. Offering advertising space was what they were used to. The idea that you sponsor actual programming seemed to overwhelm them. Many saw it as too many things at once. It was new and untested to any great degree within the Irish market, and so had little success.

We chugged along. We kept telling ourselves that next month would be better.

Next month turned into next week, next week turned into tomorrow. We were running out of cash. Yet, I still believed that people could be convinced. It would just take them to see the product for them to change their minds. But in a rough economy, people just couldn’t afford to take a bet.

No matter how well it was presented, a bet was still a bet. I wasn’t upset with people for not putting up the money. They had their livelihoods to think of. The first rule of business, make sure the bills get paid.

I remember things got really bad for advertising in Ireland. So much so that television and radio stations were putting out adverts about taking out adverts and promoting why it was a great idea to advertise with them.

With advertising agencies taking out ads, it was a sure sign that the industry was in trouble.

In this column a while back I interviewed Kevin Holler as he shut down his startup, Huma. He told me about the conversations they didn’t have and eventually the ones that had to have. Not enough companies have that conversation he told me. The one where they ask the real question: Where are we actually going with this?

We didn’t have that conversation until it was all too late. It wasn’t working, full stop. People will tell you everything about shutting down a business, involving solicitors, debt payments and how to sell off assets.

What they won’t tell you is that you will have one of the worst feelings you will ever get in your life.

The endless questioning of yourself. They won’t tell you about waking up in the middle of the night feeling lost and utterly abject.

Business is personal — it is one of the most personal things you’ll ever have outside of your own family. It gets you out of bed, drives your life. When it dies, a little piece of you goes with it. It is lost forever in the constant stream of ‘what ifs’ that life provides.

Letting it go is an incredibly difficult decision, but it is one that you have to make. You need to get real with yourself. Passion for what you do is one thing, but ignoring the realities of your business is another. For a long time, I didn’t want to see it. When you run your business you want to always look on the bright side and find the ‘silver lining’. Giving up isn’t in your nature.

However, there is a difference between giving up and letting go. Giving up is playing safe, letting go is admitting that it’s over. We paid our debts and were able to pay everybody what they were owed. I let go.

Would I do something different, if I could go back and change it? To be honest, I don’t look back on it. Regret is the ultimate exercise in futility. It’s a waste of time and there is nothing you can do to change it. Am I sad about it? Of course, but without it I would have found myself on a very different journey. It made me who I am now and pushed me to follow other passions.

We just moved into a bigger studio last week. I regret nothing.

“Failing quicker” isn’t a buzz phrase. It is very real and it is something that a lot of companies don’t do often enough. I see startups chugging down the road and I know they won’t be around in a few years. They don’t have the conversations. It’s not pleasant, but it needs to be done.

When it does happen you need to prepare yourself for what comes next. It will be a rollercoaster of emotions, involving the five stages of business grief. Ultimately, it will be better for you. Keeping it chugging along is cancerous. It will fester inside you if you let it go unchecked and it will destroy you from the inside out. Failing fast is about not letting it get to that point. It’s about seeing the problems early and tackling them. Stop wasting your time on something that is going to ruin you.

It is also worth noting that a failed business does not make you a failure. I’d rather talk to the guy who went for it and lost, than the one who never tried. The only real failure is learning nothing. It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.


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