Failing Forward – You Win or You Learn (Teacherpreneur Webinar)

Today (Saturday 28th October 2017) I had the opportunity to share the story of KEZ Camp, the business I started with two acquaintances (now friends) here in Latvia back in spring with the aim of running English summer camps for children and teenagers.

This webinar was my small contribution to the Teacherpreneur group, which my friend and fellow Delta Module 2 veteran Marina Kaldova (yes, we served in the trenches together at IH London in August 2015 – you forge strong bonds in those conditions!) runs. For more information on what Teacherpreneurship is, apart from combining the words teacher and entrepreneur, read my interview with Marina here.

As you might guess from the title, KEZ Camp didn’t exactly go to plan, but as Joe Rogan told me on his podcast (#1021 with Russell Brand):

If you do things perfectly all the time then you don’t learn sh*t.

So below is a summary of what happened: not doing it perfectly and learning sh*t loads.

The story

Raivis, Artis and I met in January 2017 through a mutual friend. The initial goal was to put a camp together for Chinese investors that Raivis had been in contact with (sounds shady I know!), so Artis and I were brought on as consultants. 

When the trail to China turned cold, consulting turned into running our own camp instead and setting up our own business to make this happen. Personally, I got whipped up in the grandeur of having my own business, proudly telling friends and family about it when it was still in its infancy. I could have done with Ryan Holiday´s advice in Ego is the Enemy – ´Just shut up and work´.

I told my employer International House Riga-Satva that I wouldn’t be available for summer courses. This caused a bit of tension, as I would be a rival to the outside camps they sell as agents. Was this biting the hand that feeds me? It was a risk I was willing to take.

What followed was not in the glossy, glamorous entrepreurial handbook: Meetings, meetings, meetings, grind, meetings, grind, meetings  – lunch hours in the middle of the day, late evenings after work, public holidays. e.g. we toured and booked venue in Valmiera on Good Friday holiday on 14th April. But in the end we had a product, a decent website (still live) and concrete dates and times for our two camp: Camp 1 – 25th June – 1st July, Camp 2 – 6th – 18th August.

Signing the business into official existence on 24th April felt like a wedding (see pic on slide 10): the excitement for the future, the plans (I pronounce you…business partners). When I went through our Facebook chat to find it, the first comment underneath was tellin: ¨FRAME IT¨. Like giddy newlyweds, we really believed that this was the start of something special.

We hired two teachers – Adam, who I´d hired for a summer camp I ran in Spain in 2016, and Ashley, who I had met at a conference in March. They turned down other work opportunities, changed travel plans, invested in their flights. The work continued, but the  work was coming to fruition, the light at the end of the tunnel was getting closer. More meetings, more work, a million more messages on our Facebook chat group. Juggling time and energy became a real art. We put up some posters, and just about had time to do some workshops in two schools in Riga and Ogre to spread the word of the camp to the kids before they split up for the summer at the end of May.

BUT it was all too late. Once the schools broke up and the kids and parents spread out all over Latvia, Russia and Europe, how could we reach large numbers of kids and most importantly, parents?

We kept working, prodding, advertising. We got a few sign ups, but not enough numbers to make it economically viable AND interesting for participants. By mid-June we cancelled Camp 1, we focused all our energy on August, but by mid-July we cancelled Camp 2.

This is NOT A DISNEY STORY of having a difficulty and overcoming it. In the short term, especially July, it was awful. Anger. Disappointment. Shattered illusions of myself. Left with an empty summer. Depression. Some days I didn´t want to see or speak to anyone. One day when my girlfriend had friends visiting Riga, I made an excuse, left early and rode the tram for a couple of hours with no destination in mind.

Nevertheless, we´ve decided to come together again in the autumn (next month actually) and see what we want to do with it. We´ve had conversations already about why it didn’t work, what we could do much better. So here´s the important bit: failing forward and learning something useful for next time.

After the pain – applying theories

1. Mindset theory

Particularly the part about responding to failure. I´ve written a lot about this before, and you might have noticed a whole Mindset section on the blog, but here´s a quick recap:

Growth mindset – Believes that you can learn anything given strategy and effort; responds to failure positively by learning lessons and not repeating mistakes next time.

Fixed mindset – Believes that ability is innate – you have it or you don’t; failure is proof that you’re just not made for something.

I’m a huge advocate in my teaching (mindset lesson plan coming tomorrow!), as you can see from the posters I have up in my classroom encouraging learners to make mistakes and then learn from them (slide 27). As well as teaching English, I try to encourage a growth mindset. But my beliefs in the theory were truly tested. It´s great when you’re winning, but harder and truly valuable once you’ve lost.

2. Golden Circle – Why? What? How?

I´ve gone into detail on this circle and applying my own work to it on a previous blog, and seeing camp through this lense was a very fruitful experiment.

Why? is the most important component, and the truth is that at KEZ Camp, we have a why: make an immersed English environment accessible to young people in Latvia without having to pay large amounts to go to camps abroad.

How? Less clear.

What? Less clear.

So we have the most important one. Now we have to build out with details and strategy, not just hopes and fluffy objectives.

Lessons from Failure

In the darkest part of the cave – this is where the gold is if we´re brave enough to go in! So here are the lessons currently obvious:

1. Plan well ahead

We thought we had much more time than we did. The end of term hit us in the face and pretty much signed the death warrant.

Do a pre-mortem on what might go wrong in the future ASAP ( idea from Daniel Kahneman, Noble Prize for Economics 2002), then there will be less need for a full post-mortem like we’ll have next month e.g. Parents meetings in schools in March and April, Baltic education fair in February. We were not ready.

2. Know your partners and yourself

We met in January and didn’t know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, how we work, how we communicate. We learned a lot, but too much to be able to adapt quickly enough. Raivis joked recently that we should have spent two weeks in a jungle survival exercise in February to get to know each other in depth; it would have been useful actually!

As for knowing yourself, I am a runaway train when I get started, but I needed Raivis and Artis to keep up as I don’t speak Latvian or understand legal issues in this country. This caused huge frustration. Raivis was more on my page, Artis was more relaxed and very busy with his mobile stone baked pizza business over summer.

3. Too much group think

All these meetings, ideas flying around, everyone nodding like Churchill the dog. But in hindsight, we needed a mentor from outside to critique and pick apart our ideas objectively. We were in a positivity bubble.

What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.

Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday.

We had passion, sure, but our purpose and realism were not good enough to succeed.

4. We needed a clear business strategy from the start

Our switch from the Chinese market to local kids was a U turn, and we failed to accurately identify:

A. need – “It worked in Spain, why not Latvia?” was as close as we got.

B. target market

C. marketing strategy (posters and activity days came up on the spur of the moment)

5. Something I’d repeat – treat people right

Without going into detail or naming names, I´d had negative experiences working for other camps and businesses in past where employees were hung out to dry and/or out of pocket when the business didn´t make money, so I was determined that I wouldn´t do the same. It´s easy to say, but aligning values and actions is extremely important for a balanced conscience and having a moral direction.

So we paid Adam and Ashley 50% of their planned wages as compensation for flights and lost earnings elsewhere. This was all we could afford as that was the last money in the KEZ bank account.

In a loose way, I believe in Karma. Maybe this will come back to us.


Applying the right mindset, you can learn and develop more from a failure than a success. This can and should lead to a better success in future, or at least being a better human being. So to those doubting whether to start something with teacherpreneurship – you win or you learn. Go for it!

Theodore Roosevelt can play us out with his Man in the Arena speech from 1910:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,

whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;

who strives valiantly;

who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;

but who does actually strive to do the deeds;

who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;

who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,

and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,

so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

As always, any questions or comments, please leave a note below or get in touch by email at


2 thoughts on “Failing Forward – You Win or You Learn (Teacherpreneur Webinar)

  1. James, I used to run chess camps in the summer years ago but it was a huge gamble. Did I pick the right week, did the camp get publicized well enough, what are my competitors doing, etc. As I was reading this I could feel your pain. I reference Daniel Kahnemann in my book. He’s huge on thinking fast and thinking slow which chess players have to use every game. I will look at your other posts as well. I work with a guy name John Assaraf who is big on mindset. Your writing is VERY articulate keep up the good work. Jim Egerton


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