Mike Clarke, Partner

Thought leadership

How does Private Equity cope with failure?

As a tech investor, I’ve heard ‘fail fast, fail often’ countless times. A mantra that made its way over from Silicon Valley to Tech UK in the 2000s as a philosophy that celebrates failure by emphasising the knowledge gained to improve the chances of eventual success.

My favourite quotes about failure are Michael Jordan “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

And the famous Thomas Edison quote on his way to inventing the lightbulb: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I’ve seen the positive and negative results of failure play out in my own life – having failed twice in Ironman triathlons to run the marathon. In Frankfurt 2018, I had trained for 9 months averaging 12 hours per week and spent hundreds of pounds on a coaching plan. I could not have been better prepared. However, I failed to execute, I failed to follow my nutrition plan and when the temperature rose to over 30c, I failed to adapt and take into account how factors outside my control would impact on my performance.

And this led me to thinking about the many different factors that management teams face, both in and out of their control, on their way to delivering their business plan.

After walking for almost two hours, I’d missed my time by a LONG way. Instead of elation at the finish line, I cried my eyes out. In my head, I was already committing to hours more training (and more importantly my long suffering wife was going to live through it) for a third time in order to achieve a goal that was only important to me.

Did my mental health suffer? Well, yes and no – for months after, I felt the loneliness and pressure of having put myself out there and ending in failure – emotions that lots of CEOs tell me they experience every day in the top job – but on the plus side, I converted the anger and disappointment inside me, into the drive to train to a (relative) success in the London marathon a year later, running 2h44m. Whilst my short experience in no way compares, I empathise with the feelings of a management team who have shown sustained commitment and drive, often against the odds, to grow a business over years.

So how can Private Equity – an industry that can only contemplate success and celebrates management teams with a perfect track record – cope with a concept that says it’s the people with a record of failure that go on to be the biggest successes?

In the end, it surely comes down to building proper relationships and trust:

  •  We need to meet management teams as early as possible – in most cases, before they are even thinking about funding. I want to see the journey they are on and track the business performance. We know all too well there will be good and bad days, weeks or months, that’s fine but hiding it isn’t!
  • Our aim is to get under the skin of the people behind the business; we want to understand what drives the management team and what motivates them on a personal level. We want to play our role in that and adapt our approach accordingly.
  • A deal process is not just a series of management presentations or Zoom meetings. We want to build a deeper relationship with the whole team – we want to hear the real stories and see the battle scars. We don’t want to just hear about the good days, we want to hear the lessons learned and how the business AND YOU adapted when times were tough.

Like Thomas Edison or many would-be Ironmen, Private Equity was never looking for perfect today – so we need a deal process and board relationship that reflects that – it’s always been about the opportunity to add value to the business, filling gaps in an incomplete team, and using our networks to build complementary skills around a CEO as the business scales.

Investors as well as entrepreneurs, repeat after me, “what would Michael Jordan do”.


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