After running a successful business for 20 years, why do I feel like a failure?

| March 6, 2020

A business I founded in January 2000 is now 20 years old. It is quite an achievement, considering the Australian Bureau of Statistics says 60 per cent of business will fail in the first three years. But instead of feeling the achievement I am overwhelmed by a disturbing sense of failure.

What have I achieved in the past 20 years? Shouldn’t I be on my fifth start up? Had three rounds of funding and spent billions of other people’s money? Or perhaps something less ambitious. Maybe even an IPO, successful or not? Even heading to the board of venture capital fund based on my failures being a success.

For twenty years I have worked on the premise of building and innovating my business through funding from profits and not through raising debt or selling equity. That is from profits after paying salaries, creditors, taxes, bank fees and all the other financial demands placed on business.

Yet the business pages are not filled with the stories of businesspeople like me. Instead I read about startups past their seed funding and going through their angel investor funding to their series A, B, C through to X rounds of VC funding on their way to an IPO.

Perhaps I spend too much time reading LinkedIn posts or online news stories about the start-ups and the unicorns? After all I launched this consulting business at the height of the bubble. I know how the latest business fads can go from ‘cash to crash’. But I cannot shake this profound sense that after 20 years I should not be leading the same business.

Instead of using other people’s money, I have managed to ‘bootstrap’ my company expansion and progress from one shared office in South Melbourne to offices in Sydney, Singapore, London and New York.

I have funded the development of numerous digital platforms including Evalu8ing for measuring collaboration within organizations, Ad Cost Checker – a statistically significant database of industry rates from the world, Agency Register – securely filled with commercially sensitive information on more than 3,500 advertising agencies, which we use to help advertisers find the right agency supplier.

There are also the many failures, the innumerable technology investment that did not go anywhere – but why dwell on those.

I have had to weather global economic storms like the 2007 Global Financial Crisis which was declared the week we opened offices in Singapore and Hong Kong. Or launching in the UK that week in 2016 when the voters elected to Brexit or the on-going Trade War between two of Australia’s biggest trading partners.

Let’s not forget as a micro-multinational (it always gets a smile but that is the best description I have) we have weathered the global catastrophes including the Iceland Volcano eruption of 2010, which left me stranded in Hong Kong for weeks, on my way to London. The earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and then in Japan in 2011. Not to mention hurricanes with names like Kartrina, 2005, Matthew 2016 and Irma 2017. Plus, the pandemics for SARS, MERS and now Covid-19 and their impact on the global and local economies. The 21stCentury has really dealt up some challenges for businesses big and small.

Actually, when I reflect on the challenges we have overcome and the fact I have chosen to do it our own way and not taken on investors or equity owners, there is a sense of achievement. I just wonder if any other business owners feel the same way?

But looking back on the process so far (I will avoid the term journey) I realize the truth in the meme below and why it resonated so much with the experience of running a business.

Here is to the past 20 years and all those who contributed along the way. And here is to all of those people who own their own business and succeed everyday simply by overcoming the challenges life throws at us.