They say most babies start to walk around 12 months. But any parent will tell you that the whole process starts way earlier than that. 

I’ve seen this up close with my daughter. At six months, she’s already hard at work mastering all the subroutines that go into taking those first steps. She wriggles in her crib to build up core strength. She pumps her legs to develop strength and flexibility. And she falls, constantly. She grunts. She cries in frustration. She lifts herself up and topples down. It’s much more a string of failures than a string of small victories. 

I share this not (just) as a proud parent, but to make a point. By now, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept has entered the popular lexicon. It’s accepted wisdom that mastering anything of consequence — be that a musical instrument or flying a plane or even learning to walk — takes around 10,000 hours. 

But intellectualizing this concept and truly internalizing and accepting it are two very different things. Watching a toddler is a vivid reminder of how much work has to happen behind the scenes before anything remotely resembling “success” happens. For entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs, it drives home a core, and easily overlooked, startup truth: failure and progress are one and the same. 

Failing forward for entrepreneurs 

It’s tempting to look at successful entrepreneurs as people who “just got lucky” or had a once-in-a-lifetime brilliant idea. But the reality is that entrepreneurship is a learned skill, like any other. There’s a huge set of building blocks that have to be mastered before any kind of real competence can be achieved. And it takes a long time to get these right. 

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I think back on my own experiences. I started a paintball field while still in high school. I dropped out of college to open a pizza joint. I started up a little web development agency a few years later. None of these were runaway successes, by any measure. But I was getting in my 10,000 hours — making mistakes (lots of them) but also learning a ton about marketing, logistics, HR and more along the way. Out of all that, years later, Hootsuite would emerge. 

Whether from age or habit or just pride, we tend to forget this elemental truth — as entrepreneurs, and really as people. Setbacks and stumbles are inevitable, even necessary, steps on the path forward. The most effective entrepreneurs, far from getting discouraged, get right back up.  

Take the example of Harland David Sanders. In the 1920s, Sanders started an unsuccessful ferry boat company and a lamp factory before deciding to turn to something entirely different: selling chicken out of a gas station. Early on, he was involved in a fatal shootout with a competitor (true), saw his restaurant burn to the ground, and was forced to close when tourism dried up at the start of World War II. Dead broke, he hit the road in a desperate effort to franchise his “secret recipe.” Legend has it he was turned down 1,009 times before he made a successful deal. But along the way Colonel Sanders was logging his 10,000 hours. He’d live to see Kentucky Fried Chicken expand to 6,000 locations in his lifetime. 

Then there’s Alec Tidey, a legend from my backyard who might just be the Colonel Sanders of coffee. Tidey started his career as a pro hockey player, though his NHL career lasted all of nine games. Hobbled from hip injuries, he reinvented himself as an entrepreneur, borrowing money from his dad to start a locksmith business. Then, on a whim, he relocated to a surf village in Mexico and opened a little cafe. He started roasting beans, tinkering with his own “secret recipe” for years before finally coming up with something he called the honey process. First selling door-to-door to hotels and restaurants, he eventually grew Baja Beans into one of the best known coffee companies in the region.  

Ultimately, the lessons here for entrepreneurs aren’t really profound or new: be patient, learn from failure, walk before you run, stick with it. We’ve all heard this advice countless times before. But seeing my daughter crawl, teeter and fall for the better part of a year — all in the prelude to taking her first step — has brought this truth into sharp focus. She fails happily, unquestioningly, like it’s the most natural thing in the world — if only we remembered how to do the same.   

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