On Failing Like A Phoenix

By Melanie Bainbridge

It seems to be a common theme for entrepreneurs, that people assume we wake up one day with business in our blood.

I can tell you now; it’s simply not the case. In fact, I want to tell you a story of how close to bankrupt this erstwhile entrepreneur has been, and how close to losing everything she came, before I tell you about the place she's at now.

I call this story Failing like a Phoenix (mostly because ‘a potted history of falling on my face’ or ‘what to do when you’ve screwed it all up royally’ just didn’t sound as sexy). I'm also putting it out there for all my fellow entrepreneurs - because I know how hard it is to admit you've failed, but how liberating it is to be honest about your falling down moments.

The beauty of Facebook is not only does it remind you of the good times; it also reminds you of the times you’d rather forget.

It very recently (and slightly unkindly) reminded me that two years ago I learnt the hardest lesson entrepreneurship has to teach. What is that lesson? That assumption really does make the proverbial ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.  

Yep. This is me admitting that I’m an ass…  That I’m guilty of making assumptions which, in a very direct way, led to a huge and very costly failure, and a major reassessment of my life.

Once upon a time there was an aspiring entrepreneur. She wanted to run her own business and stop working ‘for the man’. She had a very small arts and events company, which shall remain nameless, and which had recently run some events which made her and her partner look very successful (despite the fact that not one of them had actually broken even, and the business had been haemorrhaging money for quite some time).

Despite acknowledging this, she was determined that a festival would save the business. Rather than cutting her not insubstantial losses while she was only a little bit behind – this entrepreneur was going to trade her way out of a financial hole by investing in an industry that she could see falling to pieces around her. Major festivals were being cancelled. Her partner was owed thousands from an interstate festival she’d performed at which had gone bankrupt. The poor bastard who had organised the festival for over 20 years had sold his house to try to pay his debts. He failed.

Yep – that entrepreneur was me, and selective blindness had hit me hard… I’d succumbed to my ego. I told myself that despite the fact that no-one else could do this in the economic and political climate we were wallowing in, I was going to be the incredible magician who was going to convince the closed-shop arts funding world that I was the City’s cultural saviour. I was going to bring a ‘Retro Rumble’ to little old Perth.

And it wasn’t like I didn’t do my research. I asked all of my best musician friends if they thought it was a good idea. They did. Of course they did. They wanted to be included and knew that as a guilt-ridden musician I’d pay them well to be involved (unlike many other Perth festivals). The interstate musicians knew that I would pay for their flights and accommodation. The local musicians knew that they’d have a great opportunity to meet and network with musicians from all over the country. Of course they weren’t going to give me an honest answer.

I asked a major local government if they thought it was a good idea. They did. Of course they did. They would give me a small bucket of money to deliver a community festival that would cost three times as much as their grant would cover, and I would deliver for them something that boosted the economic and cultural profile of their City. Of course they weren’t going to give me an honest answer.

I asked my partner if she thought it was a good idea. She did. Of course she did. She had utmost faith that even though I was working full-time, didn’t have any daylight hours free to build a sponsorship profile or seek investors and only had about a third of the funding we needed secured for the festival, I could pull off the impossible – because I had myself convinced that I could, and she loved me. Of course she wasn’t going to give me an honest answer.

And of course, me being me, I couldn’t just start small and work within the budget I had, I had to take huge risks, thinking that a bigger festival was going to attract more people - banking on magic sponsorship to cover the shortfall - blind to the fact that sponsors just weren’t interested, and that I wasn’t able to provide an attractive enough package for them to invest in…

And me being me, I had utmost faith in the people I was booking, thinking that if I was actively supporting them by building a great, innovative festival ‘for them’, they would support me in return by being hugely proactive and marketing the festival aggressively, which would magically get people in the door…

But the biggest problem here was not that I listened to others… but that I ignored the obvious and listened only to my ego, and not to my inner voice - which was yelling 'Danger! Danger!'. I assumed that the Western Australian people wanted this festival. After all, the very small group of people that I knew were into the kind of music festival I was proposing had said they did. So it must be true right?

I assumed that they would pay the money I thought the festival was worth. After all, I’d asked my muso mates and they’d all said – for sure, we’re worth that and then some. So it must be true right?

I had worked myself almost to death trying to pull off the festival, and I assumed that the people around me, acknowledging that I was a local micro business, and friend, colleague and support to many; might see me facing bankruptcy and cut me some slack.

Two years later, I’m still paying off the massive debts I personally acquired through this festival, and probably will be for another year to come. I sold the only property I owned for far less than I should have got for it. I liquidated every asset I had, which wasn't much to start with. My first world problems are many, and for a while I was angry. My community had forsaken me. Pretty little Perth was awful and unsupportive – and I wanted to get out. It was everyone else’s fault but mine.

But if you fail big, you learn big. This is my deep breath. My acceptance speech. My acknowledgement that my first world problems are of my own making.

And now I’m ready to accept. There were failures here. Huge failures. My failures. And they were obvious from the start. In writing this I know you can see them. Everybody can see them - everybody except the me that I was two years ago. But I see them very clearly now.

Sometimes you think you’re doing things for all the right reasons. I truly thought I was boosting my local music industry, supporting my amazing music colleagues, creating a community and cultural event that Perth had never seen before. All of this was true.

Ego, stubbornness and deliberate blindness can render even the best of intentions void. Building a business on something no-one wants is the number one business killer. Being too stubborn to change tack when you realise you’re failing is number two.  Assumptions are the undoing of entrepreneurs – and I was undone. And I’ve watched others go down this same path since, not learning from the failures of others, with almost identical results.

But I’m ready now to start again, with incredible knowledge under my belt, and I’m ready to fail again if I must.

I still believe in trying to make the music industry fair for Australian musicians – but this time I’m going to make sure that the people I’m doing it for… are the people who will support me all the way. I’m going to seek honest answers, and not only hear what I want to hear. I’m going to turn corners to avoid obstacles rather than running in a straight line at them. This is me, being honest with me.

Henry Ford once said:- “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

This is my new mantra. I will begin again. Intelligently.