What I Learnt From Failing

A year ago today on IWD 2019, I stood in front of a roomful of Goldman Sachs partners and clients, sharing a blindingly bright vision for the future of my brand, Madderson London. Six months later we had to shut our doors. I find myself a year on, having walked away from an industry I thought I loved, having re-discovered the joys of writing, and having just published my first book. I’ve been asking myself for the last six months: was it all a complete failure? And if so, is that a bad thing? 

It’s tough to write about this because the story of Madderson’s failure doesn’t belong to me alone. Our team lost their jobs, our factories and freelancers lost a huge chunk of their business, and, hardest to bear, our equity investors lost their money. Letting good people down was by far the hardest part about our decision to shut up shop. However, I do recognise that we, like many other large and small businesses who’ve gone under, did our best with the tools we had, in a mightily tricky environment. And so today, as the wounds start to heal, I wanted to explore what I learnt about failing from this experience. And learn I did; it’s been one of the biggest life lessons I’ve ever been given. 

The first lesson I learnt is that when you ‘fail’, the sky does not fall. I learnt this not only from my own experience but from all the other entrepreneurs who entrusted me with their own stories of business failure and the heartbreak, guilt and shame that goes along with it. Life goes on. Life gets better, even (more on this below). In many ways, I feel as though I got off lightly. 

The hardest parts of failing for me were letting people down as I mentioned, the blow to my ego (see next paragraph), and managing my guilt around the huge (to me) sum of money that we lost, on behalf of people we cared about but also ourselves. However, as time moves on and water flows under the bridge, it not only becomes less painful but life outside of your particular ‘failure’ continues. My husband and children still loves me. We’re still healthy. Surely, that’s what really matters in life? 

Managing failure was also a huge blow to my ego. I’m a longtime control freak, and I had always believed that I achieve have whatever I wanted through sheer force of will and intellectual curiosity. I have always over-identified with my achievements and successes, so when they fail … well. It’s very humbling. I have no doubt that it was one of the most valuable lessons I could have learnt. I also learnt that people are very kind; that while I may have felt humiliated, others weren’t humiliated for me—they were just sad, and concerned. 

One of the biggest lessons I learnt was to be less fearful. As Jamie Foxx says, ‘What’s on the other side of fear? Nothing.’ Shutting down a business means tough conversations with employees and investors. There is nothing I fear more than a tough conversation. Each one was excruciating. The uncertainty we had around whether we were doing the right thing was immense. But in the end, I found that taking responsibility and getting through those tough conversations with, I hope, the vulnerability and decency that I’ve learnt from Brené Brown (as opposed to armouring up) meant that I survived them, and discovered some hidden strengths in myself. 

This was a big one for me. I learnt that we define failure by such a narrow set of parameters—mainly financial. I had defined the success of Madderson as based on scale and profit, and we failed stupendously on both fronts. But as the emails poured in from clients, I realised that they had not seen us that way. One woman wanted us to know that she had worn Madderson for pretty much all of her major life events over the previous five years. I was touched beyond belief to hear this. To know that we had succeeded in making women feel wonderful, and becoming a part of their memories, made me realise that failures and success stories can coexist. I recently came across this quote by Jack Gilbert from his poem, Failing and Flying: ‘Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew’. Nothing in life is black and white. Gilbert finishes his poem with the lines:

‘I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.’

It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t let the ending taint the beauty of our stories. Everything has a lifecycle. Everything runs its course. 

The biggest lessons I learnt were two more spiritual ones. First, when we push, push, push to control outcomes, we’ll usually fail. There are far more forces at work than we can ever understand with our limited human perspective. Second, rejection is protection. Six months on from announcing our closure, I’m no longer devastated—I’m thriving. The universe has a far better plan for us than we can ever see, and I feel in many ways that it conspired to close out my chapter of fashion entrepreneurship so that I could embark on a new adventure. It’s my hope that the rest of our wonderful team and suppliers eventually believes the same. 

At the end of the day, I don’t think I really believe in failure anymore. I believe we’re on this earth to learn, and failures are some of life’s most potent lessons. 

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