If At First You Don’t Succeed …

Cotter Cunningham, the founder and CEO of RetailMeNot, was one of our keynote speakers for a 2013 Longhorn Startup Demo Day at the University of Texas.

RetailMeNot, which went public in July 2013, is worth $2.12 billion and has just filed for a follow-on offering. It is four year old—for a value creation of $500+ million per year. Who says Austin, Texas, can’t do business-to-consumer now? HomeAway is another one of our five technology initial public offerings in the last five years. It went public in 2011 and is worth $3.86 billion. It is just nine years old. Yes, Austin hasn’t produced a Facebook or Twitter-size outcome—there needs to be a higher volume of failures (entrepreneurial experiments) to do that. But, don’t forget we did produce  Dell, National Instruments, and Whole Foods.

As Cunningham explained at Longhorn Startup, as well as when I interviewed him as part of my entrepreneur-in-residence speaker series at the McCombs School of Business Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, his journey, at age 46, started out with the euphoria of being his own CEO followed by a gut-wrenching pivot.

"I think I can, I think I can."

“I think I can, I think I can.”

Cunningham bucks the flavor-of-the-day entrepreneurial stereotype: the college dropout popularized by our own Michael Dell and more recently Mark Zuckerberg. Dell and Zuckerberg are business savants, just like Michelangelo was an art and engineering savant (by the way, I’m pretty sure Michelangelo would have made a damn good entrepreneur in this day and age).

Most of us simply aren’t savants. I don’t consider myself one. I didn’t start my first business until I was 24 and earning my MBA—and I didn’t hit on something big enough to drop out of my MBA program, so I proudly finished and then chose Coremetrics. Cunningham’s first company was called Divorce360.com and you can see him quoted as their CEO here. After more than a year, it was a miserable failure. The funny and fortunate thing is Cunningham has never been divorced! Instead of crying in his beer about it, Cunningham and Tom Ball at Austin Ventures decided what to do next and came up with Small Ponds, which later became Whale Shark Media and then RetailMeNot, named after its largest digital property. No matter the name, the business was the same and through acquisitions it became a juggernaut. Here it is in Cunningham’s own words:

 

 

The line between success and failure is sometimes very thin indeed, and that is the subject of this blog post. To be upfront, my goal is to help entrepreneurs shrug off failure more easily, after accounting for the important lessons learned and just “keep walking.”

Remember that most people read the news and a rare few make the news. Those who make the news set the tone for the rest. No one said it would be easy to be an entrepreneur, but the journey is the reward. Reflect on and learn from your mistakes but don’t marinate in them—just keep walking.

What are your “failure” stories? Let’s get a dialogue about this going in the comments below. Perhaps we’ll be able to help someone on their journey.

 

  • Brian Ring

    Well thank you for the line – “the line between success and failure is very thin indeed.” However, you, sir, are indeed a savant – or, ok, super-duper-star. In fact, I daresay you are not qualified to write about failure – at least not as qualified as most of your readers, including yours truly. I have had a spectacular string of failures punctuated by just-enough high-points to keep the bills paid and the resume looking sharp. But that’s for a blog post of my own – follow me @brianlring

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