Here is part three of an ongoing series exploring failures in preparation for my upcoming panel at SXSW, "We F*cked Up. Now What. Exploring Failure, Together," with our pals at Happy Cog and Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive.In this post, I am considering...

Here is part three of an ongoing series exploring failures in preparation for my upcoming panel at SXSW, "We F*cked Up. Now What. Exploring Failure, Together," with our pals at Happy Cog and Wil Reynolds of Seer Interactive.

In this post, I am considering this question:  Can you smell failure coming?

You should watch for red flags and trust your gut. Intuition is completely underrated—probably because you can't explain why something "feels" wrong or bad or whatever. However, most failures can be seen coming a mile away—a strong scent of something bad bad bad wafting into your nostrils. Problem is, you haven't smelled this failure yet, so you don't recognize it. You may, however, think to yourself, "Now there's an odd smell." I am definitely not proposing you avoid pursuing new things just because you don't know exactly what you are getting into. However, failure is tainted with "smells" we can look for and avoid, even if we haven't ended up hip-deep in the particular failure before. Here are the top 5 "bad smells" I watch out for when trying to circumvent failure:

1. Smells like apple, looks like orange. The client calls you asking to buy apples, but seems to think oranges will be delivered. Translation? Make sure your client knows what you are selling. And on the flip side, make sure the client knows why what you are selling is different than what the cheaper, less experienced company is selling.

2. Smells like Chop Suey. The customer sits down in a restaurant and asks for the chef to cook something not listed on the menu. Translation? If the client thinks they know better than you do regarding your business, it smells like sure disaster. Abort.

The reference to Chop Suey is based on this popular description of its origin. During his exile in the United States, Liang Qichao, a Guangdong native, wrote in 1903 that there existed in the United States a food item called chop suey which was popularly served by Chinese restaurateurs, but which local Chinese people did not eat. (Wikipedia Entry)

3. Smells like burnt toast. The client asks you to make so many revisions to your initial contracts or designs you can't even remember what you set out to deliver. Translation? If it begins poorly, it will end poorly. Or, nit-pickers will drive you crazy. Or, don't leave anything in the toaster too long.

4. Smells like Iceberg. The client keeps asking you to email them things and they keep getting bounced back; their voicemail system is full and you can't ever reach them at the office. Translation? This client is a sinking ship—don't go down with them trying to lend a hand.

5. Smells like cheap cologne. The client keeps avoiding discussion of budget or payment, only to hit you up with an "investment opportunity for stock equity" after you have invested significant time with meetings and discussions. Translation? If a prospect avoids discussing money, it's probably because they don't have any. Don't waste your valuable time.

The key is to gain the experience in your life and business to perfect your olfactory and professional skills to identify these red flag scents like a well-trained truffle pig. Until then, watch out for brown piles masquerading as mushrooms.

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published March 9th 2010