Joseph Benson-Aruna

December 6, 2023

On Building Regardless of Failure

In American Symphony, a documentary touching on Jon Batiste’s work and life, he says something profound about music: 

“What we love about music is not that it sounds good. What we love about music is that it sounds inevitable. It’s playing the thing that we all know is unfolding. Whether we want to accept it or not…” 

Hearing those words, I couldn't help but think of all the stories about companies shutting down or laying off people. 

Every time one of those stories make the news, my friends are quick to seek my opinion and hear what went wrong. It’s tough to give an answer if you’re not in the room, so more often than not, I find myself telling them “it could have been anything and this is actually the norm.” So why do we keep starting and funding companies if it’s so hard to do? Well, to paraphrase Jon, it’s inevitable, and this is how we learn and evolve.

There are a lot of reasons a company can fail. From running out of money, choosing the wrong strategy, not being what the market needs, to cofounders falling out. A lot of reasons. As long as you have people willing to take the risk to start something new, you’ll have stories of these companies dying. Think about it, we all know at least one person who’s entrepreneurial in our close circles, many who seem to have a new business idea every other month. Not only do they have these ideas, the execute on them, and many fail. Sounds like your mum? Yeah? Same story here, only this time it’s more public. And I can tell you one reason why. We romanticize the idea of creating companies.

I remember very clearly in the early days of the current startup scene in Lagos, it wasn’t sexy to build a company. At all. If you were spending time building a startup at CcHUB, you were just a nerd with an affinity for ‘suffer head’. No one was throwing money at you left right and center, and if by some stroke of luck, you raised money it was always so small or came with a lot of conditions, people congratulated you with caution. To make ends meet, you most likely had a job. Somewhere along the line, things changed. I don’t have the energy to go into when exactly. But they changed sha. Founders became celebs, raises were congratulated, companies with no hopes of even ‘bad revenues’ were paying top dollar salaries and had fancy offices. In all of these, the hard work that goes into building companies became abstracted.

Building a business is hard and the probability of failure is much higher than many of us admit. We’ve masked all that hard work behind the fancy articles, tweets, sponsorships and events, but it’s always there waiting for us. For the founders and their teams, consider this a coping mechanism for the myriad of problems they wake up to everyday. But we can’t pretend that it’s not hard and failure is always a more likely outcome than success. So what we are witnessing is normal. Companies will die, people will lose their jobs, sectors will consolidate and bad actors will leave. But that’s okay, because that’s what always happens as systems evolve.

Last year, I sent a note out to our founders telling them to prepare for the long road ahead. If you’re currently building a company, my advice remains the same. Corrupting Jon’s beautiful words slightly: what we love about building companies is not that it feels good. What we love about building companies is that it is inevitable. It’s creating the future that we all know is unfolding. Whether we want to accept it or not.