The importance of failure: Annabel Karmel
Annabel Karmel is a best-selling UK's best-selling author, and an iconic mumpreneur. Her first book, The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, has sold over 4 million copies, and she is a trailblazing expert on child nutrition. Here she talks about how failure, while difficult to deal with, can actually be a positive.
"My name, Annabel Karmel, is synonymous with success thanks to the global popularity of my books on baby weaning, but I have walked hand in hand with failure on my journey and would urge anyone tripping over hurdles en route to their goals to keep on keeping on. Knock backs, set backs and stumbles challenge your commitment, sharpen your focus, and resolve your will to succeed; and I am not the only one to think so.
Many established people and products rose to their pinnacle thanks to criticism, doubt and mistakes - not a smooth supportive journey to the top. Winston Churchill famously said that ‘Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm’. It is the bumps in the road that foster perseverance, ensuring that you constantly fine-tune your idea. Business conversations have the potential for negative feedback, an outcome that should be welcomed as a space to solidify your objectives, cement your motivation and stoke your persistence. James Caan once said to me that ‘When you have an idea, rather than simply ask people what they think about it, ask them why they think it might fail, and then you might learn something’. Good advice.
I learnt the value of persistence with my first book, a collection of recipe ideas to help wean your baby. My commitment to nutritional care was catalysed by the tragic loss of my first child, Natasha, who sadly died at 13 weeks from a viral infection. It wasn’t a diet-related illness but I was understandably cautious when it came to ensuring that my second child, Nicholas, was provided with foods that optimised his health. Feeling vulnerable when he became fussy I struggled to find enticing recipes to encourage him, and so set about devising my own. I shared my recipes with other mums and, fuelled by the discovery that they were proving popular with others, set about compiling a book, which was turned down by over fifteen publishing houses.
Each rejection letter could have been enough for me to doubt the viability and worth of my idea, but I continued to believe in my pitch. I knew that I was closer to my target audience than the people writing to tell me my book wouldn’t sell. I knew that it would.
I was new to the publishing world and didn’t know the rules, which meant I wasn’t afraid to break them, so I kept approaching people and broadcasting my vision. Fortunately a tennis partner of mine introduced me to a small dynamic book packager, who created book ideas and sold them on to mainstream publishers. They understood what I was trying to achieve and worked with me to shape a mock-up which they took to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where it was sold to US publisher Simon & Schuster - who ordered 25,000 copies!
This deal unlocked doors that had previously remained shut. The backing of a major US publisher made others want to open their doors and fellow mum Gail Rebuck, current Chair of Penguin Random House (head of Ebury at the time, an imprint of Random House), saw that the book would fill a niche in the market and agreed to take it on. It sold out within the first three months of its print run without any advertising support, success resulting from word-of-mouth recommendations amongst the intended market, the market that I always knew shared my support for the book. It is now the second best-selling hard back non-fiction book since records began in the UK.
Cracking the tough publishing nut did not mean that I never again encountered a shut door - I had to knock several times before anyone would listen to my claims that a photographic version of the Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner would further increase sales. It was doing so well in its illustrated form that no one wanted to change a formula that wasn’t broken. I stuck to my belief that people want to look at the food they are making, and the proof was in the profit-pudding - the photographic version hugely increased sales.
This experience taught me that you have to remain your biggest advocate to fully optimize the potential you have unleashed with your idea. However, it is normal to have moments of self-doubt and it is reassuring to be bolstered by external experts, contacts and peers who remind you that achieving your dream is a marathon, not a sprint.
A friend of mine once told me that they borrowed money from a bank and invested it in a business that didn’t work. When they wanted to borrow money again they tried all sorts of ways to raise money, but eventually had to go back to the bank as a last resort. To their surprise the bank lent them the money. Years later, when their business was thriving, they asked the manager why he agreed to lend them the money, and he said: ‘I prefer to lend to you because the first time round you failed and so learned how to succeed. I knew you wouldn’t make the same mistake’.
The opposite of success isn’t failure - it is not trying. If you seldom fail, there is a good chance you’re playing it too safe. In my experience a failure in one area leads you to success in another, as was the case with my range of fresh baby food. I developed it because I was troubled that babies were consuming food that was older than they were - after all, most baby food has a shelf life of one year. I launched a range of fresh chilled baby food for Sainsbury’s, but as there is no chiller in the baby aisle the food was situated in an area of the store that mums were not visiting.
The range was eventually scrapped because although sales were good, wastage was high. I remained committed to the view that baby food should taste like real food, and while some of the purees on the market weren’t too bad anything with vegetables, chicken, fish or meat tasted awful. I decided to see what would happen if I took my chilled baby food recipes and put them through a retort process to extend their life. They tasted great but I would not have arrived at this point had the chilled range succeeded. This failure led to my range of baby food pouches being re-sold in Sainsbury’s, as well as Tesco, Waitrose, Lidl and the Co-operative Food.
Failure rarely feels fun at the time, but the lessons it teaches may not take long to become apparent, and are likely to lead you on to greater successes in the end. During fleeting periods of failure, remember that you are in good company. Marilyn Monroe’s first contract with Columbia Pictures expired because they told her she wasn’t pretty or talented enough to be an actress. She kept plugging away and became one of the most iconic actresses and sex symbols of all time. "