Even geniuses can fail: an Apple Lisa II computer. Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg.
Even geniuses can fail: an Apple Lisa II computer. Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg.

Apropos of my recent Etsy piece, here’s an absolutely fantastic post by designer Chris Norstrom on his experience designing and launching a product. Every entrepreneur I’ve talked to has stories about how completely clueless they were in the early stages of their business (even very smart people with tons of business experience). In my new book, I quote Jim Manzi: “In my experience, most entrepreneurs, they’ll have a similar story. ‘The company almost died, and then we figured out in crisis what we really did for a living.’ ”

But mostly, you don’t seem to hear those stories until you’ve already started a business. The way people think it works before they do it is that you have this idea, you work like hell, maybe you have a few setbacks trying to get people to buy your new products, but eventually you have a flash of sales or marketing brilliance, you get people to try the product, and then they love it and you get rich, the end. The stories that make the news -- the wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, the early stage company plucked from obscurity by a venture capital firm -- reinforce this delusion.

What you rarely read are the stories of people bumbling around, making costly mistakes that seem ridiculous in retrospect and nearly sink the whole business. Even though this is, in my experience, how my favorite entrepreneurs recount the experience after the fact. You’d be amazed at how many (now successful) people have lost money because it didn’t occur to them to count things like the cost of their time -- or in some cases, the cost of their materials. Even very basic accounting often has to be learned the hard way.

Which is why it’s great to see an aspiring design business recount just how many things had to be learned by accidentally selling things at cost, or a loss, or using the wrong order-taking software, or choosing the wrong WordPress theme for your site. This is how thriving businesses are really founded: one mistake at a time.