How Much Do Entrepreneurs Learn from Failure?

(p. R2) . . . , I looked at 8,400 German startups to see if the new companies launched by failed entrepreneurs did any better than first-timers.

They didn’t. In fact, they had poorer outcomes the second time around.

Failed entrepreneurs were more likely to go bankrupt or dissolve their business than first-time entrepreneurs. In fact, even if an entrepreneur had run a business successfully before, they were just as likely to see their new business fail as a first-time entrepreneur.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions. A Harvard Business School study of venture-capital-backed firms in the U.S., published in the April 2010 Journal of Financial Economics, found that previously failed entrepreneurs were no more likely to succeed than first-time entrepreneurs.

A study of German entrepreneurs by a researcher at KfW Bankengruppe found that entrepreneurs who started a company after a failure performed poorly compared with other founders. “Their probability of survival in general as well as their risk of failure in particular is worse than that of other startups,” according to the researcher, who added: On average, “there is no indication that business failure triggers a reflection process in which entrepreneurs look back on mistakes they have made and adapt their future behavior accordingly.”

. . .

Why does this happen? Why don’t entrepreneurs learn from failure?

For one thing, learning is difficult in startup contexts.

Usually, when we think of learning, we think about gaining expertise through regular practice. In his “Outliers” book, for instance, Malcolm Gladwell calculates that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to be a chess grandmaster.

But part of the reason practice pays off is because a chessboard is regular: It always has 64 squares and starts off with 32 pieces. You face one competitor. Likewise, in football, a consistent number of players on offense face a consistent number of defenders and try to advance by clear, regular rules.

These regularities don’t occur in startup situations. Markets evolve, customers are fickle, and opposition numbers vary. You must learn what it takes to become the equivalent of a chess grandmaster by playing with constantly evolving rules and opponents—making it much more difficult to interpret prior actions and experiences successfully.

For the full story, see:

Francis Greene. “If at First You Don’t Succeed, You Most Likely Will Fail Again.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, December 2, 2019): R1-R2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 1, 2019, and has the title “Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Learn From Their Mistakes.”)

The unpublished working paper, co-authored by Greene, that looked at 8,400 German startups, is:

Gottschalk, Sandra, Daniel Höwer, Francis J. Greene, and Bettina Müller. “If You Don’t Succeed, Should You Try Again? The Role of Entrepreneurial Experience in Venture Survival.” ZEW Discussion Paper, #14-009, 2014.

A related paper by three of the four co-authors, is:

Gottschalk, Sandra, Francis Greene, and Bettina Müller. “The Impact of Habitual Entrepreneurial Experience on New Firm Closure Outcomes.” Small Business Economics 48, no. 2 (Feb. 2017): 303-21.

The Harvard Business School paper, mentioned above, is:

Gompers, Paul A., Anna Kovner, Josh Lerner, and David S. Scharfstein. “Performance Persistence in Entrepreneurship.” Journal of Financial Economics 96, no. 1 (April 2010): 18–32.

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