4 lessons you can learn from my really stupid mistakes



I’ve seen a fair few, and I’ve made a whole bunch myself. At worst they can be humiliating and cost you cold, hard cash. At best, you are the only one who knows about them.  Either way, they can knock your confidence. However, the opportunity to learn from mistakes can be enormous, so sit back, wince and / or chuckle at some of my worst mistakes and learn. 


(By the way, this was a hard post to write. I’d much prefer to skite about the times when things were successful and reflected well on me, but I know that failure stories are much more instructive, and let’s face it, way more interesting!)


Trust your instincts

Back in the mid-1990s I worked in a liquor store. In those days you could pay for your weekend drinking supplies with a cheque (remember cheques?!) It had been drummed into us that cheques were not payment, they were just a “promise to pay” and we did not have to accept them. 

One Friday night a man bought an extraordinary amount of alcohol for a party and paid for it with a cheque – which I accepted - for $1,100. You can see where this is going…the cheque was from a stolen chequebook and my bosses were left significantly out of pocket.

Mistakes happen, right? Well yes, they do, and thanks for your understanding.  As it turns out, I had written a detailed description of the man and his car on the back of the cheque.  I had even written down the car’s number plate (predictably, a stolen car).  For some reason, I was suspicious of him but I still let him walk out with a lot of our stock and a meaningless promise to pay. I didn’t trust my instincts and it cost us.

What a fool!


Guard your brand with all you have

Back in 2002, I was a Product Manager for a new telephone service at a broadcasting company in the UK.  We used an external company to handle the telephony and billing side of our phone service, and we were the ‘face’ of the service, handling the marketing, customer communications and customer service.  As we quickly learned, the company we were using were really not very good at telephony.  Right from the start we had serious issues (we’d take money from customers’ accounts without notifying them, we’d cancel their service with another provider and sign them up for our service even when they had clearly said they didn’t want it and one memorable week we even sent a group of customers someone else’s itemised phone bill then swore blind it just could not possibly happen!) The more our subscriber numbers rocketed up, the more complaints we received.  As quickly as we were signing up customers, they were cancelling.  Our brand and our reputation took a massive hit, and quite rightly so.

Be very, very careful who you trust with your brand. 


Don’t be lazy! 

Laziness costs. Or to put it more generously, lack of thoroughness costs.

When I worked in bank marketing, I submitted a request for a pre-Christmas direct mail campaign. I pulled the data for all the customers making good progress paying off their personal loans, with the idea for a campaign to offer to top up their loan to the original loan amount just in time for the expenses of Christmas.  (Please don’t judge me too harshly for preying on people in debt, it was my job!)  The branches liked the idea, the call centre approved, my boss was happy but the bank’s risk management team was not. They refused to give it the go-ahead unless I refined the data to reduce the bank’s risk.  I refined the data and the campaign was rejected again. The customer data was refined at least another two or three times before they would give the campaign their approval and in the meantime, Christmas had come and gone.

It was March when we eventually did run the campaign and we got a 14.2% uptake.  That’s such a high response rate that the campaign had featured on my CV for years!  A good response rate for a piece of direct mail in those days was typically 3%.  But just imagine if I had managed to get the data right at first (or at least at second attempt).  It could still have gone out pre-Christmas and the uptake would most likely have been even higher.

I could have saved people a lot of time if I had just knuckled down and really worked hard on getting the data right.  The easy way isn’t necessarily the best way. 



I’m quite sure you have your own experience of this.  Chasing perfection, using the excuse that something is just not quite right yet is procrastination pure and simple, even if it seems like procrastination at its most noble.  In truth it’s still not a lesson I have adequately learned, I struggle weekly with not ever drawing a line under some things because they could be even better.

But the thing is, even better eats up time and nothing will ever be perfect. 

You can always go and fix something after the fact, but you can’t ever get back the time you spend chasing perfection.


I'd love to hear any lessons you've learned in your career or business, please share them in the comments below!