Hard Lessons: What I Learned From Failure

Six alumni reflect on a difficult time in their careers.

January 19, 2023

| by Jenny Luna

Business leaders often tout the power of failure, or the value in failing fast. But what does that actually look like? And, years down the line, what lessons does failure hold?

As part of an ongoing series in Stanford Business magazine, we ask Stanford GSB alumni to reflect on one of their biggest business failures and what they learned from it.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Joe Lacob, MBA ’83, is the majority owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. In 2010, he led a group of investors who bought the team for $450 million. During a halftime ceremony on May 20, 2012, Lacob took the mic at center court to address the sold-out home crowd. That turned out to be a bad idea. In this essay, he looks back on the night he got booed into silence by frustrated fans.

Portrait of Dominique Mielle at her home. Credit: Lesly Hall

“It isn’t simple to beat your ego into submission in order to ask strangers for forgiveness of wrongdoing you believe you did not commit.” Dominique Mielle, MBA ’98, is a former partner and senior portfolio manager at Canyon Capital, a multi-strategy hedge fund. In this essay, she recalls how a hasty email led to an “Oscar-worthy” act of contrition.

Chip Conley, relaxed and laughing at his home.

Chip Conley, MBA ’84, is the founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain and currently serves as strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership at Airbnb. In this essay, Conley reflects on one of his biggest failures — choosing the wrong partner —and what he learned from it. “We’d mistakenly partnered with a hedge fund that had a short-term mentality about making money,” Conley says. “While they were very gracious, we disagreed with them about the definition of success.”

Photo by Steve Goldbloom

As founder and CEO of Floravere, Molly Kang, MBA ’15, set out to make the “luxury bridal experience” accessible to women who couldn’t normally afford such a thing. At the beginning of 2020, two years after it launched, the company had showrooms in 13 cities nationwide, with big plans for expansion. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, weddings went away, and the business dried up. In this candid video interview, Kang talks about what it was like to be “at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Portrait of Andy Laats. | Credit: Ryan Field

Andy Laats, MBA ’97, is the CEO and cofounder of Nixon, which makes watches and other accessories for the action-sports market. In this essay he shares how he approached a difficult point in his venture: how to grow without bailing on its core partners. “We had spent over 15 years developing relationships,” he says. “We couldn’t just abandon [them].”

Amanda North with an artisan. Credit: Tina Conway

“I made the painful decision to shut down the company while we still had cash in the bank, effectively belly-landing the airplane.” Amanda North, MBA ’82, is the founder and CEO of Plan C Advisors, a consulting firm that helps business leaders address climate change by mitigating risks and building value for stakeholders. In her “Hard Lesson,” she looks back on the painful experience of shutting down a business that had once been her dream.

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