5 things failure taught me

    Lessons from a successful (and sometimes not) entrepreneur

    By Omar Mouallem for Thought Box on September 23, 2016

    At 24, he was worth $300,000. At 25, nothing.

    Clark Murray, ’02 BCom, quickly loses count when he tries to recall his many business ventures, starting with a data software company he created in his first year at the University of Alberta. Or would the first venture be the snow-shovelling service of his early teens, which afforded him his first Oilers season tickets package at the age of 14? Either way, the 36-year-old business graduate has launched or helped launch at least 10 upstart companies in tech and hospitality, worth about $35 million altogether. 

    But not all of them have gone well.

    “I don’t have much confidence in my intelligence or any particular idea, but I have an extraordinary amount of confidence that if everything fails, I’ll get myself back up and start again.”

    “I lost all my money and got in huge s--t with everyone you can get in s--t with when you lose all your money: Revenue Canada, my landlord, suppliers, customers,” he recalls, thinking back to Blue Chicago, one of five hospitality businesses he helped found. Unlike Canadian Brewhouse, The Pint and Oodle Noodle — all of which are thriving chains — the Edmonton sports bar Blue Chicago was a spectacular failure. “It’s a singular experience to sit there, in your business, and watch it fail around you. I realized that hard work and pay don’t necessarily co-ordinate.”

    Today, the real estate investor, stock trader and serial entrepreneur is busy applying what he has learned from previous failures. He’s in the midst of creating Forward Spaces, a co-operative work space in Edmonton for startups, and Dub5, a point-of-sale software that helps small businesses make smarter decisions with everything from staffing to inventory. 

    Even if things go sideways on his latest ventures, he wants young business people to know that mistakes might very well be the best thing that can happen to them.

    “It’s OK to be absolutely screwed and for your best-laid plans to blow up in your face,” he says. “It’s OK to argue with your business partners and realize you’re the last man standing. These are the skills you have to learn.”

    Here are five more lessons Murray has learned — the hard way.

    1. Embrace your stupidity — then work harder

    Shortly after selling DeBolt Data Depository for a modest sum in 1999, Murray (then still a UAlberta student) launched StudentCardz.com. The e-commerce company let college students order calling cards with their school logos to “apply for jobs and hit on chicks.” He thought it was an ingenious idea that would be moving thousands of units in no time. It sold five sets of cards. “Having a failure makes you realize you’re an idiot, and if you’re an idiot, you’re going to work much harder,” he says. “I don’t have much confidence in my intelligence or any particular idea, but I have an extraordinary amount of confidence that if everything fails, I’ll get myself back up and start again.”

    Two decades later, he co-owns a successful e-ticketing company, Igniter Tickets, which has managed to eke out a niche in an industry dominated by TicketMaster. Looking back, he says StudentCardz.com came too early in the Internet era, when people were leery about giving away credit card information online. So he focused his energies elsewhere until the timing was right “to set up that same infrastructure again,” he says. “So if you think [a failure] is the end of the world, it is. If you think this is the beginning of the journey and you need to redouble your efforts, you’ll be very successful.”

    2. Grow a garden, not a vegetable

    Murray lost $300,000 in the Blue Chicago sports bar venture in Edmonton. At the age of 25, he was left with nothing.

    His mistake wasn’t opening a doomed sports bar, he says, but rather only opening a doomed sports bar. That’s why, when he picked himself up, he started three businesses simultaneously; he never wanted to go back to zero again. “I started up all these companies to split my salary three ways, so if I failed again I wasn’t coming home in rags, eating buttons.”

    As Murray plans Forward Edmonton, he compares the startup community to a garden. “You’re not cheering for particular vegetables, you’re cheering for volume,” says Murray, whose garden now sprouts $6.5 million in annual revenue. “When people in startups wash away, they aren’t just ‘returned to sender.’ They’re back to industry smarter and wiser. Whereas if you have one failure and you go home and you don’t return — that’s the failure.”

    3. Money’s not real

    As a day trader, Murray lost more money than he’s willing to admit in the 2008 economic crash. But by then, he had learned money is abstract. “It’s not real. You can always raise money.” Case in point: the previous year, he and friend Adam Rozenhart, ’03 BA, raised $7,000 to start the Nation Network, a group of sites for NHL super-fans that is now worth millions. “If we lost all our money today, it would be the same thing,” he says. “As long as you have your health and energy, you can bounce back. The trap that a lot of early-stage entrepreneurs get into is discouragement, because they don’t understand how to make something out of nothing.”

    4. Buy some time

    An earlier iteration of Dub5 received a sweet injection of money from an angel investor — and then the 2008 economic crash sent it into a screaming spiral. Rather than pack up and leave, he and his partners pivoted the company into something called Stage 2, a run-of-the-mill web design company that eventually pivoted again to become Igniter Tickets. “We had computer programmers we wanted to keep around, so [we thought] let’s take on projects to keep the lights on and figure out what we’re going to build next that we can monetize,” he says. “So buy some time, because the minute you quit and go back to a day job, it’s really hard to extricate yourself from the golden handcuffs.”

    5. Learn from other people’s mistakes

    Murray is a voracious reader of business biographies, embracing that moment in a book when everything goes sideways, for, say, Steve Jobs when he was booted from Apple, or Elon Musk when he tried launching an electric car just before the 2008 crash. It shows that even when you're out of luck, you're not out of opportunities. “I like the act of throwing spaghetti at a wall; it’s fun whether it sticks or not. There’s always more spaghetti.”

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