The successful failure
The entrepreneurial existence is often a cycle of inspiration, risk, success, failure, and rebirth and isn’t that what makes stories of the scene so interesting to read? When we interview someone for a story, it’s not so often that we ask only one question and receive only one answer. With Jose Antonio Morales we did. His (one!) answer took nearly two hours to relate and it covered his whole lifespan. Throughout his life, people have loved to be around him, yet he didn’t understand why until fairly recently. (Spoiler alert: it’s got to do with what it means to succeed and fail in life!)
The beginnings of an entrepreneur
To understand why someone with such a rich and varied life story as Jose’s could have been confused about what it means to succeed or to fail, one must go back to his cultural roots. Jose (41) grew up in Lima, Peru – a country with clear-cut distinctions between the rich, working, and poor classes. To “succeed” there, as in many traditional western cultures, one must be among “the best” at one’s studies, at keeping one’s nose to the grindstone. The reward is having a comfortable pension and perhaps something leftover to leave for your children. Jose – the first-born child of a lawyer and his well-educated wife – just didn’t fit into this model.
He was a curious and nice enough child, he recalls, “but I didn’t really respect authority. I paid attention only to the things that I liked – that was the beginning of my entrepreneurial personality.” Despite loving to learn, especially science and computers, he continually received poor grades and became the black sheep of his family. His family put so much pressure on him, however he continued to fail at his academic goals – or rather, their academic goals for him.
Learning early on about risk
What I really had in mind was the web, but it didn’t exist yet.
At 17, he had to prove to his doubtful family that he was good at something, yet he continued to perform poorly at university, while studying electrotechnics and computers. So, he started his own business importing computer parts from the USA, building computers and teaching people how to use them. He was especially interested in the potential of connecting computers with each other through telephone lines and modems in order to create bulletin-board systems (BBS) to share info. “What I really had in mind was the web, but it didn’t exist yet.”
When it finally did, a few years later, Jose was ready and his company became the fifth in Peru to provide internet services, after convincing his father to guaranty a 30 thousand dollar bank credit to get him going. Disaster struck quickly. “Some thieves broke into my office and stole everything, so I was in complete deep shit,” he explains. “I had to transfer all my customers to another ISP, and had no income to pay off my debt.” So as not to ruin his father’s reputation by defaulting on his debt, he had to refinance the credit and, in the end, had to pay the bank more than triple what he originally borrowed.
If this is success, why am I unhappy?
Behind the scenes of Fear and Fail Slovenia; Photo credit: Jose Morales
By this time, though, he had gained a lot of experience with the original Microsoft Windows and Office software, and landed a job at his father’s law firm setting up a network and training their staff. He partnered with the Microsoft subsidiary in Lima and got more customers. He was earning well and could pay down his debt. “But I was still a mess,” he admits. “I never got my degree and I was socially stigmatised.”
Then, one day at an airport gift shop, both he and a young lady from Slovenia had their eye on the same souvenir, of which there was only one available. “So of course, being a South American gentleman, I told her she couldtake it,” he says. His chivalry led to their striking up a conversation while waiting for their respective flights and they exchanged contact info.
Back in Lima, Microsoft was so impressed by his work there that they offered him a position as the product manager for Windows and Office in Lima. However, Cupid’s arrows are sharp and true. Jose kept corresponding with the Slovenian girl, Tatjana, and fell in love with her. As a consequence, he turned down Microsoft’s job offer and flew back to Slovenia, this time with an engagement ring in hand. He proposed to her, and she accepted. “Totally nuts!” admits Jose. “We had a civil marriage in Lima and a church wedding in Slovenia in 2002, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Starting (again) from zero
It wasn’t in his job description, but my first employee had to hold the baby while I made telephone calls.
“Here” refers to a small town in northeastern Slovenia called Murska Sobota. With about 20 thousand inhabitants, its the capital of one of the country’s less developed provinces. Without the academic credentials or knowledge of Slovenian to land a job, Jose had no choice but to start up from zero, again. He founded his own business, B4contact, at the same time his first child was born. “It wasn’t in his job description, but my first employee had to hold the baby while I made telephone calls,” recalls Jose.
With his Microsoft contacts and expertise, he quickly landed a contract setting up a local university professor with a Sharepoint website and related training. This led to contacts with other schools – and soon 18 per cent of Slovenia’s primary schools had Sharepoint websites hosted by B4contact. Microsoft named Jose a Partner Area Lead (PAL) – one of only 18 globally – for CEE. “Finally, I started to feel like I was important, and my father started to think that I would turn out all right after all,” Jose remembers.
From a crisis to New York
The 2008 economic crisis hit hard and Jose had to lay off staff. “I was burned out on the IT stuff and wanted to close the company.” One of his hosting customers, a woman from New York, invited him to Peter Drucker management conference in Vienna. She was so impressed with Jose’s ideas that she invited him to come to New York to pitch to her team. This resulted in a job offer as CIO for her company – perfectly timed, as Tatjana was just laid off from her job. The company assured him that he could maintain his quality of life in NYC – they set him up in a house in Scarsdale and he enrolled his kids into school there.
However Jose became nervous at the bad decisions the company was taking and decided to quit. But before deciding to return to Slovenia, two things happened that set him on a path of self-discovery.
Who are you gonna listen to?
Expedition to South Styria; Photo credit: Jose Morales
At a training course, Jose got to meet the renowned MIT Sloan School professor Edgar Schein – the 83-year-old father of organisational culture theory. Jose told him about how his career path wound its way between IT professional and businessman, without his being recognised as either. Jose remembers, “He told me, ‘there is one word to describe you: you’re an entrepreneur!’ It clicked right away. Finally, I understood who I am. That set me free, made me realise I could do whatever I want, not just follow a single career path, like I’d learned in Peru.”
These revelatory changes of perspective led him to reevaluate who he was and what he was best at. He asked his friends and colleagues for more feedback, expecting them to tell him how great he was at IT or business innovation. “But it was a shock! They all basically told me, ‘Jose, you’re just a great person to be around.’”
No man is an island
He and his family returned to Slovenia in 2012 and he gave himself space and time to continue with his process of self-discovery. Armed with the realisation that he was a) and entrepreneur and b) people liked being around him, Jose embarked upon a new business, which he called Lincoln Island, after a mysterious location in his favourite Jules Verne adventure story. The idea was to organise trips for like-minded entrepreneurs to meet up, to learn from other entrepreneurs around the world and, together, to create new business ideas. Despite early success with a couple of free test trips, the new business struggled.
Let’s make a conference about failure.Jose about his current project
Trying to promote Lincoln Island, Jose attended a supposedly “international” conference in Maribor. However, until Zemanta-founder Andraz Tori took the podium, the other keynote speakers had been speaking only Slovenian. Tori asked the crowd “how can we call this an international conference if we’re all speaking Slovenian? Won’t we ever learn from our mistakes and failures?”
“Bing!” – Jose chimes, recalling this ‘aha’ moment. “Let’s make a conference about failure.” He pitched his idea to Tori, who hooked him up with the right people and, before long, the Fear and Fail conference was born.
Being vulnerable, to learn from failure
The first “meetups” confirmed to Jose what is so special about Fear & Fail: “the participants ended up as friends, feeling like they had always known each other.” During the conference in Ljubljana, he figured out why: it was empathy that stems from vulnerability. “It happens when someone opens up and shares a story of fear and failure – it establishes a very strong connection with the audience.”
“Success is obvious,” Jose believes, “but we humans love to tell stories about the challenges. Sharing fears and failures doesn’t occur inside mainstream corporations, and what goes wrong in corporations is obviously due to a lack of empathy that results in disconnection between its people.”
In the future, Jose would like to advise corporations. “To be honest, everyone freaks out when you say ‘failure.’ But I’m having some talks with the University of Ljubljana, who want to introduce the concept of failure as a path to success for corporations. This represents a bottom-up change.”
Bringing social impact to Murska Sobota
Jose took the Fear and Fail conference to Vienna and was very impressed with his partner there: Impact Hub Vienna, a social-impact driven coworking space. When a meetup was held there in 2014, Jose found the empathy spirit was even stronger than in Slovenia. “People were hugging me when the event was over.” The next Vienna F&F event will take place on the 28 January, 2015, at the Hub.
Jose celebrating his coworking space in Murska Sobota; Photo credit: Jose Morales
In the process of organising his events at the Impact Hub, Jose realised he needed to open such a social-enterprise coworking space in his adopted hometown of Murska Sobota. A national Slovenian bank granted him a location and he is investing in building the infrastructure. But located in such a sparsely populated area, will it work? From an outsider’s perspective, Jose seems to be taking the Field of Dreams “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach. He optimistically believes that whatever happens, “it’ll be a 100 per cent improvement over what was there before.”
To illustrate its potential, he mentions how one of the space’s local volunteers turned out to be the founder of the internationally successful startup codeable.io. “I didn’t know him up till then and he was my neighbour! He was sick of working alone and wanted to be around people. Even if we are only four people having a good time there, I’m happy. My goal here is to wake up the entrepreneurial spirit in everyone’s heart.”
So, what is success?
“The craziest thing is that I’ve been doing this for free, not making any money from it, and yet I’m so in love with it.” This seems to be how Jose has been able to redefine success in life. “It’s really the freedom to make whatever you want to do and to fulfil your life. If you can cover your basic expenses and do what you love, then that’s a success. The majority of us think that we have to pay our bills, but we forget about our success. My shift in thought was that success has to be today, not tomorrow.”