After my business failure, can I get hired?

After my business failure, can I get hired?


Four years ago, three co-workers and I bought the software development firm we worked for, but business has slowed down and the company is failing. My 10 years working for this previously successful company is the only major work experience I have. How will an employer view a business failure? How can I sell my employment qualifications even though my own business isn’t succeeding?

Nick’s Reply

Not a lot of Ask The Headhunter readers have owned a business, but this is an interesting question because at its heart it applies to anyone who is trying to make a job or career change after a failure.

The answer is all about how to shift from failure in one area of your work life to success in another. So whether you’re a failed business owner, or a manager who couldn’t really manage looking to return to a staff job, or a widget designer who tried and failed at sales and is ready to go back to making widgets, please read on.

Business failure is not professional failure

Don’t confuse your technical skills with your ability to manage a business. Failing at running a business doesn’t mean you’re a failure professionally. In your interviews, focus on what you do best and pursue jobs along the right lines. This applies to anyone — not just programmers or technical folks. Don’t get bogged down in your failure. If you tried and failed at management, remember that you still have a solid record as a software developer.

Business failure is common

What if the business you ran was a consulting business? Can a self-employed consultant get a regular job?
In a world where everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, few actually try, and most who do try, fail. Many of the employers you interview with will understand that. Our business culture has never been so comfortable with the idea of people trying and failing to run their own businesses (or trying and failing to pursue a new career). So, don’t expect negative reactions.

Of course, you will get some knocks for your failure, but take that in stride. Be careful to present your failure with candor and good humor.

Business failure is not the question

Remember that the key questions the employer has for you are not about how you’d run a business. They’re about whether you can do the job at hand. So turn the conversation to your prowess as a developer. Show how you will use your skills and experience for the employer’s benefit in software development.

Another key question will have to do with your work habits. Employers sometimes presume that a business owner will find it difficult to take direction and to be managed. It’s up to you to demonstrate that you can work for the manager and be a good team member.

If you’re asked why you’re leaving your own business, just ‘fess up.

How to Say It:

  1. I’m not a great business owner, but I am a great software developer. (Or, I wasn’t great at selling widgets, but I am great at building them.)
  2. My technical talents helped make the business successful before I bought it.
  3. I no longer have aspirations about running my own business. I got that out of my system. I want to be part of a team that works well together.
  4. My goal now is to be the best software developer I can be — and to contribute to my team’s success.
  5. Now that I’ve learned designing software and producing great code are my strong skills, I’m all the more focused on doing exactly that.

When meeting with a prospective employer, demonstrate that you understand the difference between what you failed at, and what you want to do next. Don’t be afraid to be blunt with an employer.

How to Say It

“You focus on running the business; I’ll focus on delivering the best product anyone could produce.”

(Or selling the most product, or running the most efficient production department, or producing the most effective marketing materials.)

Convey that message as honestly and compellingly as you can, and I think you’ll get a good reception. Stick to talking about the job you’re going after. Focus on the work to be done, not on your business failure. That’s how you let the employer know you’re not stuck in the past. If you start getting defensive (or too detailed) about your old business, you’ll put the employer off. (Check these two magic interview questions you can use to put the interview on track.)

We all have failures, but the smartest people reveal their strengths when they admit their failures. They show they’ve learned from the experience. They stop talking about the failure and eagerly move on to the next challenge.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever run a business that failed? What was it like getting a job? How would you advise this reader? What would worry you about hiring someone whose business failed? What other kinds of failure have you recovered from?

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