How To Earn A PhD In Failure

Leadership - PhD in Failure

I earned a PhD – in Failure – after I was fired in 1996.

I served three years as President of a pay telephone management company, well before payphones (remember those?) were decimated by the cell phone industry. We achieved a stunning 1000% growth over this period, but suddenly our revenues fell precipitously. At the time, few saw that the root cause for the rapid decline was cell phones, and the only source I could  come up was my lack of leadership. I suggested to the CEO that we consider my transition out of the company, over time. I was fired the very next day. My ego and self-confidence were shot. (A year later, the company shut down.)

I felt a crushing blow to my professional abilities and my financial well-being. I had never been fired before, and I had a big mortgage, a young family and a small cat. That painful incident marked the first of many enduring notches on a tall totem-pole of business failures. Now, after years of reflection, that ‘failure totem-pole’ is as an emblem, a certificate if you will, for my PhD in Failure.

Just weeks later after this life defining moment, I founded a company in the burgeoning web / digital marketing industry, which I later sold for over a million dollars.

Years later, I understand that failure is not only an inevitable consequence of working hard for a cause, it’s also an essential component of personal and professional growth.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to ever step foot on the moon, may have said it best: “We need to fail down here, so that we don’t fail up there.” Failure is a part of any aspirational goal. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen.

Over the years, I have tried several times to achieve personal and professional goals, sometimes with great success and sometimes with disastrous results.  Each failure, however, has prepared me for the next successful accomplishment.

Here’s just a few examples from my past:

From President to Unemployed

Being fired as President of a payphone company freed me up to found, grow and successfully exit my first business (as described above.)

Under Water by Millions

I participated in a real estate investment, leveraging an enormous amount of bank debt to build a multi-family housing complex on farm land. Just weeks after closing our loans, however, the governing municipality, without notice, changed the development zoning from multi-family to industrial. We could not proceed. I was personally liable for millions of dollars, as were my partners. It was a crushing failure. As we were determining our next steps, within weeks of the debacle, we sold half the land to a major retailer for their new distribution center earning us enormous profits, enough to cover our debt and make a huge profit. It was a home run.

I Lost My Passion Play

I love alternative rock, and before the existence of music event-listing-services (like SongKick or BandsInTown), I would spend dozens of hours searching for tours of my favorite bands. (I tracked over 30.)  I envisioned an application that would allow me to know where and when my bands were playing around the globe, rather than a limited view of only those bands coming to my town. I raised capital, built a team, and started development. We ran out of money, however, well before our first version worked. Early versions proved our product could work, but they were not good enough for release. One primary reason was that I was not willing to produce a truly Minimal Viable Product (MVP). We reached too far and the programming was too complicated to get it right the first time. We had little room for error and no room for inevitable revisions and pivots. I suffered yet another failure. I have since rebooted a similar project with MVP design and have delight in the process.

Writer Or Not

I’ve been writing my entire life. I’ve attempted to write books and screenplays several times, with no success. Every critical review I ever received was terrible. I failed consistently. But, I never gave up. Now, writing, speaking and consulting on what I know and am passionate about is my profession. (Constructive feedback is welcome, of course.)

Failure is inevitable, and so, it appears, is success.

When you reach for the galaxy, you’ll eventually hit a star. When you a find new notch on your failure-totem-pole, you can rest assured there’s success around the corner.

I call it a PhD in Failure.


Go Slay Dragons!