What I’ve Learned from My Business Failures – Part 1

I have a confession to make. I have failures in life. Yes, yes, I know. Hard to believe. But believe it. I have failed. The first significant failure that comes to mind was my second semester of advanced calculus at UC Berkeley. The first semester was not a problem. By the second semester, you practically had to have the mind of Spock to get through that thing. After two semesters of incompletes, I split it up into smaller chuncks (2 units at a time instead of the full 4) and finally got through it. I literally got on my knees and thanked the dear Lord in heaven when I did not have to take any more calculus!

But, it is not my academic failures that have taught me the most in life. It has been my business failures. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach at Whitestone Motion Pictures’ Protege Program. I gave a talk on how to actually make a living in this business. One of the questions a protege asked me was, “What were some lessons I’ve learned from failures I’ve had in business?” I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

Lesson #1: Get it in Writing

I’ve been an entrepreneur sine the age of 14. I’ve tried lots of different kinds of businesses. It just so happens though, that the only business venture I’ve started that actually made money was this video business. Nine+ years later (knock on wood) we’re still going strong.

One of my early adventures was a poster company called By D-Zyne (the “D” stood for Dawson. Get it? That’s my last name. Heh. Anway…) My initial product was a poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of “The Big Game” between Cal and our rival Stan-turd (oops, I mean Stanford. If my father-in-law is reading this… “GO BEARS!”) Anyway, the year was 1992 and I was a year out of college and business school. I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity. I got all the proper rights to take photos of the helmets and have them facing each other with “The Stanford Axe” in the background (that is the prize that goes to the winning team). The game was being played at the Cal stadium that year. I made arrangements with the school to sell the posters in the stadium. I borrowed $1,000 from my step dad to print the posters. I was gonna make a fortune.

Then the week of the game, I get a call from the Cal office saying that I would no longer be able to sell the posters in the actual stadium. I cannot tell you how pissed I was. I had hundreds of posters waiting to be sold, and I couldn’t sell them. I tried to sell them outside the stadium and the cops shoed me off because I didn’t have a permit.

Moral of the story…

  • Get it in writing
  • Have a back up plan
  • Don’t commit significant resources until you have a contract in place

Tomorrow I’ll share with you a business failure that was so bad, my health (and even one point, my very life, so I thought, was endangered. I’ll give you a hint about what it was: rap music.

P.S. Oh, there was one more lesson I learned in this fiasco. When I went to the Stanford football field to take a picture of the helmets, I brought with me a Cal helmet. The Stanford coach was not amused. Maybe because I was raised by a single mom during my formative years I was not versed on the etiquette of bringing arch-rival memorabilia on a school’s field; but suffice it to say, I was this close to getting my a** kicked by the Stanford’s front line that day.

It seems only appropriate to include as a video to this post, what remains perhaps the most thrilling and exciting end in college football history, “The Play.” (fast forward to 2:08 in the video to get to the good stuff.)

This video illustrates another valuable lesson: it ain’t over till the trombone player is sacked!