Category Archives: PhD Research

Radio 4: The Value of Failure

I collaborated on one of these five pieces for BBC Radio 4 on The Value of Failure.BBC

How do you define failure?

In my PhD research, Gulst and Maritz provide an excellent summary of how to define failure. If you can find the article – see below. If you cannot find this an alternative is available as an online pdf  – click here.

Failure definition

Failure definition

“Gulst, N. and A. Maritz (2009). Venture Failure: Commonalities and Causes. Proceedings of Regional Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research 2009: 6th International Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship (AGSE) Entrepreneurship Research Exchange. L. M. Gillin. Adelaide, South Australia557-570.”

Doctoral thesis published

I graduated from Cambridge University with my PhD in April 2013.Keith Cotterill PhD Thesis

My thesis can be downloaded here. Enjoy !

Design Conference Paper published (CADMC, September 2011)

I presented the following paper at the Cambridge Academic Design Management Conference (September 2011), co-written with my collaborator, JP (Joao Fonseca da Silva).



Submission of PhD Thesis

After three years, I submitted my thesis to the University of Cambridge for examination.

Title: “How do attitudes of habitual high-technology entrepreneurs to early-stage failure differ in Silicon Valley, Cambridge and Munich?”


Examining failure – who is being examined?

Being a technology entrepreneur involves a direct and primary relationship between the individual and the venture – typically as founder, executive and board member, and possibly as an investor in, or employee of the firm. I believe its more useful to focus on the attitudes of entrepreneurs, not investors.

Studying entrepreneurs (and investors) requires an awareness of human nature. Cannon and Edmonson write: “We have an instinctive tendency to deny, distort, ignore, or disassociate ourselves from our own failures” (Cannon and Edmonson 2004: 7), which places the researcher on alert – in investigating attitudes to such phenomena, personal barriers and sensitivities may inhibit the gathering of truthful and candid observations. McKenzie and Sud assert the inadequacy of quantitative research methods: “the primary methodologies of US entrepreneurship research are mail questionnaires and directed interviews.” (McKenzie and Sud 2008: 124). They propose an alternative approach, examining the personal stories told by entrepreneurs about their varied failures.

In such cases, is it the venture or the entrepreneur that has failed? Timmons is clear: “Business fail but entrepreneurs do not.” (Timmons 1989). Yet some individuals clearly do fail: they take on more responsibilities than they can handle and make poor decisions. There are good and bad businesspeople, as much as there are good and bad ventures. Perhaps there is an evolutionary aspect here: failure can be seen as a process by which weak entrepreneurs are eliminated from future activities. There are two ways such “bad entrepreneurs” can be eliminated: through self-selection, in the case of “one-time” entrepreneurs (Gulst and Maritz 2009) who choose not to start subsequent ventures, and through market factors (inability to raise funds, recruit staff or customers).

Article: Failure Rates and Definitions of Entrepreneurial “Failure” and “Setback”

From my research notes, here are some comments on entrepreneurial (and venture) failure rates and definitions in this field.

Definitions of “failure” can be objective (e.g. bankruptcy and dissolutions) or subjective (interpretive evaluations of outcome versus objectives), but every failed venture is likely to experience “setbacks” along the way. Setbacks represent material disruptions to the business plan (loss of a key customer, failure of product delivery, loss of funding, etc.). Pretorius offers two other definitional terms: levels of distress and turnaround (Pretorius 2009): problems arising prior to terminal failure of the venture are defined here as “setbacks”. Although this lexicon may also be applied to a wider range of failures in innovation, the technology-based startup venture is the focus of this review.

Gulst and Maritz provide a comprehensive survey of failure definitions and causes, drawing a distinction between “entrepreneur failure” and “business-venture failure”. (Gulst and Maritz 2009). While business-venture failure can be identified by corporate bankruptcy and dissolution, the picture may be more complex: for example, if a company is acquired at a valuation below that of the capital invested, is that a success or failure? For the founder, business continuity through a loss-making trade sale may be seen as a success – perhaps a disappointment, but not a failure. Entrepreneurial failure may represent a deviation from the desired expectation of the entrepreneur (McKenzie and Sud 2008). This relativist position assesses failure through the motivations, desires and achievements of the people involved. Also, as Pretorius notes, scientific literature on business failure is spread over multiple disciplines, so that the first task of the scholar is to identify the various strands and tie them together (Pretorius 2008).

One perspective examines the “funnel” of opportunities and the rate at which ventures fail prior to, and after formation. Lerner suggests that only 0.5% – 1.0% of business plans submitted to Venture Capital (VC) firms are funded (Lerner 2009). Bhidé echoes this: in addition to the high failure rate in new ventures (50 – 90%), a larger number of venture plans never make it to incorporation (Bhidé 1992). For the habitual entrepreneur, these numerous un-funded “pre-failures” may also offer valuable experience.

Some authors are clear. “Most new ventures fail,” (Timmons and Spinelli 2004). Others offer different views on the rates of new venture failure, although some studies address entrepreneurship in general rather than just high-technology ventures. Longitudinal research by Delmar and Shane tracked the 30-month evolution of business for a random sample of 233 new ventures (Delmar and Shane 2003): 82 of these had disbanded within 30 months (a failure rate of 37% within 2.5 years). Another study of VC-backed venture failures finds that approximately 40% of ventures fail within the first year, and this number rises to 90% over ten years (Dimov and De Clercq 2006). This indicates that more startups are created than can be sustained: the high failure rate of market-entry decisions has been called the phenomenon of excess market entry (Camerer and Lovallo 1999; Wu and Knott 2006), and some of this unreasonable level of market entry has been ascribed to “egocentric biases in market entry decisions” (Moore et al. 2007: 440).

American studies indicate failure rates ranging from 56% (Kirchhoff 1997) to 90% (NVCA data – National Venture Capitalists Association). Pretorius documents a consensus that between 50 and 90 percent of entrepreneurial ventures fail. He suggests: “failure is probably the one thing that almost all entrepreneurs will face somewhere in their endeavors. At the same time, failure is probably the last thing on the mind of an entrepreneur starting out on the entrepreneurial process.” (Pretorius 2009: 1). This represents a paradox of entrepreneurial failure – although it is statistically likely they will fail, entrepreneurs never think they will be the ones to do so.

Stokes and Blackburn examine underlying reasons for failure in UK-based small companies (Stokes and Blackburn 2001). Although this analysis covers all small businesses, not just technology-based ventures, it concludes that business closure is not synonymous with business failure (Stokes and Blackburn 2001). In this study, only 20% of closures were regarded as “financial failures”, with the rest representing trade sales, technical closure or termination due to death or retirement.

Econometric and predictive approaches to failure require specific definitions of participant, assumptions and events. Cressy’s “Brownian motion” analysis (Cressy 2006) establishes a model for firm failure in which the entrepreneur balances return (profits growth) with risk (variance of profits) within many constraints. This model provides an elegant picture of likely failure patterns in new ventures (see Figure 1): the longer a firm survives, the more likely it is to continue to do so.

In summary, definitions of setback and failure are diverse, but overall studies of failure rates indicate a failure rate of 50% – 90% within several years.