Over the last eight years Nikolaus Förster, chief editor and publisher of the economic journal “Impulse” has been gathering accounts from well-known entrepreneurs of their worst decisions or failures for the category “My Biggest Mistake”. He was able to line up a number of famous business people: Hans Riegel, the man behind HARIBO, described an experience from the year 1950 which proved to be an important lesson about dealing with banks; Walter Gunz, founder of the electronic chain Media Markt got to understanding towards the end of the 80s how unpredictable companies can be and how devastating loss of power can feel in your own business. August Oetker spoke about unsuccessfully trying to conquer the Asian market with the wrong concept and an unsuitable workforce. Words like “deceit”, “blind confidence”, or “lessons-learned” are commonplace with the texts which themselves are daring and also blunt. The 91 accounts have now been made into a book.
“My Biggest Mistake“ was already sold out before it hit the shops. What’s behind its success?
I moved from the Financial Times where I was the chief editor to join “Impulse” and introduced the new section. It relatively quickly became one of the most- read sections. The transcripts were published on the last page of the magazine, but people read it first. People are not willing to speak so openly about their mistakes but they love to read about them. This only strengthened our position. Since then we’ve staged a number of conferences, large events with 300 members of SMEs, always on failure. I like to call it the “Fuck-up nights for adults”. It’s a topic close to my heart: mistakes inspire people and can be the basis for success – if you’re able to see what lies behind it.
How did you get the business heads to open up?
Most of the people we’d contact would decline. With others, it was a case of having to convince them over a period of many years. You had to meet the individual in person to build up trust. I travel a lot, attend events, committees, I present, this allows me to build relationships. Ever since becoming a publisher and business entrepreneur 4 years ago due to the management buy-out of the magazine, I have gained a different standing which helped as well. Naturally, we’d leave some things out in order to protect people, names etc.
Do you feel that these stories are just waiting to be told?
Some couples have spent weeks if not months deliberating. They took their time reflecting and later told me what e ect the question had on them. You end up reflecting on your whole life. Others have said, “oh God, when you ask me it gives me goosebumps”. Entrepreneurs have experienced things which are so profound that physical changes begin to appear. So much money has been lost, sometimes hundreds of millions, relationships have ended, trust has been destroyed, those were events which have had implications for future decisions. There where entrepreneurs who wanted to be featured badly within the column and would send a PR agent. But we didn’t want that. And it’s not to be forgotten: the entrepreneurs in the book have grown as humans and entrepreneurs because of their failure. Others who haven’t managed so well are no longer accessible. People who fail so terribly and lose everything disappears from the public arena. There are mistakes which you simply can’t reverse.
Why is it so difficult to speak about mistakes?
For Germans, I can say: we believe that mistakes are blemishes which need to be concealed. If you start a business you speak of “Existenzgründung”. It’s not: “Okay, let me just try and see.” It’s about your whole existence! The German economy became strong by what we call Mittelstand, that is SMEs. If you don’t manage to pass success down to the next generation then that hurts, it’s painful and embarrassing. However, I’m convinced that a company will only be successful if it can speak openly about mistakes and begin rethinking things. This is what the entrepreneurs in the book have been able to do for their companies.
Do you find it to be a positive book?
Definitely. In essence, it’s an encouraging book helping you to deal with mistakes. When I speak about it I gain credibility, from employees as well. The lesson is to always get back up, especially when it’s di cult to carry on. And that’s a recurring theme throughout all the stories: entrepreneurs are marked out by their resilience.
The 10 lessons you found read almost like words of advice which seem to go beyond entrepreneurship.
In the end, it’s always about people. Are there catastrophic decisions in marketing? No. Of course, mistakes are made, but looking back there are many other events which have done much more damage. A 90 year old reflecting back over his life sees that the most important questions are also the basic ones. Who am I working with? Who is my partner? Who can I trust? Where are my actual personal strengths? What are my values? What does my inner voice tell me? And where is it gone? I can’t hear it anymore! How can you create sustainable values? How does a company work, in fact? The answer is simple: it’s all about people, relationships. You have to rally up your best workers, you have to keep them enthusiastic, and you have to have shared goals, mutual values. These are the fundamental aspects of a company, irrespective of whether they’re fashionable. This is why the book with its lessons is a truly timeless piece.