Redefining Failure

Despite the disasters, I learned lessons that they don’t teach you in business school or investment banking.

On Monday I sold our family canoe rental business in southern Mississippi—Soggy Bottom Canoe and Kayak Rental—that has been struggling for its 7 years of existence. I bought the place as my midlife crisis (at the age of 26), and started it with my uncle. As the losses mounted, my parents wanted to help so they jumped in to invest and manage the place as I moved on. The entire family spent more time and money trying to keep the business afloat than I thought was possible. It strained relationships in our family, with everything from simple arguments to my uncle quitting twice and being fired once. I walked away with about 12% of the money I invested (wish I had that much left of my Citibank stock). By every traditional measure, Soggy Bottom Canoe and Kayak rental was an unmitigated financial, personal and professional disaster.

Despite the disasters, I learned lessons that they don’t teach you in business school or investment banking. I learned that the spreadsheet should be an output of the execution, and not the other way around. I learned that a $200 time clock doesn’t make people want to show up on time. I learned that when a guy shows up with his pupils dilated, don’t let him back up the trailers. I learned to work toward the best, but budget for the worst. I learned that you may build it, but they won’t come if they don’t know you exist. When you’re looking at a business plan, everything looks great. Delivering on the assumptions and expectations behind it is a very different story.

Saturday night, we had a farewell party for everyone that had worked for us and with us over the business’ history. The new owners joined us to meet the employees, forest service partners and local friends of Soggy Bottom. The party was a microcosm of the last 7 years—there was a ton of potential, but the weather was terrible, half of the expected number of people showed up and we spent too much money. That being said, I looked around at the people that showed up and was impressed.

My parents spent a lot of time in Mississippi (they live in Dallas) working on the business and made a lot of friends. My mom passed away last summer, and the outpouring of support from the extended Soggy Bottom family both then and over this weekend was impressive. My parents worked as hard for the people involved as they did for the business, and as a result built relationships with people that stepped up during the single most difficult time in my family’s history. These were people that wanted as badly as we did for the business to succeed, but most importantly they wanted my family to succeed. The new owners are great—young, energetic and ready to write Soggy’s next chapter. The business we started will become an outdoor leadership school for kids, with the potential to push Soggy Bottom’s tongue-in-cheek slogan of “Saving the World, One Canoe at a Time” from absurdity to reality. It’s great to know that the business that my mom poured her heart and soul into will become a place where kids spend one of the best weeks of their young lives.

It’s very easy in this market to use a company’s financial performance as the sole marker of success, but as I looked around Saturday night it was clear that Soggy Bottom was not a failure. Our blood, sweat and tears built the foundation for what will be much more than just a good business. Over the next few years, thousands of companies will fail and tens of thousands more will struggle for survival. Bankruptcies and layoffs make for great headlines, and I think it’s clear that we have more bad news to come. Any time a business isn’t a financial success, it’s easy to write it off as a failure. Financially that may be true, but the lessons learned and relationships built set the stage for new businesses and opportunities and the relationships grow and expand. It’s during the hard times that you learn a lot about yourself, your friends and your business. The US economy has some tough years ahead, but the lessons, relationships and foundations will survive and launch the next round of personal, professional and financial successes.

Thanks to everyone that helped make Soggy Bottom a success, particularly my parents. I hope that everyone involved took as much from the experience as I did.

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