What My Dad’s Failed Business Taught Me about Life

Katharina Kopf

When I was 12 years old, my dad launched a start-up. After having closely analysed and researched the market, he had identified a gap. So, he quit his job, got a loan, recruited the best people, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. His entire team worked feverishly for months and months on the project: a sort of paper-based Craigslist with the revolutionary addition of CD-ROM content.

I remember vividly the day the paper went into print for the first time. My parents, my sisters and I helped distribute it in Vienna’s city center, wearing the typical newspaper merchant uniforms of the time. We were all very excited and proud of my dad.

Fast forward a year or two, and litres of blood, sweat and tears, and the business folded. Bailiffs knocked on the door and took our TV. They even cut off our phone line at some point. My mum went back to work to support the family. My dad found a new job, but life was never the same again.

For the next years, a cloud hung over us.

We struggled with feelings of shame and guilt, abandonment, even betrayal. My father’s dream had vanished and he never really bounced back. The failure of my dad’s business upended our previous life.

Very similar to today’s crisis, there was no sudden shock: a slowly creeping darkness invaded our existence and permeated it gradually.

This made it almost impossible to react decisively or to put any defense systems in place. We were overwhelmed.

These similarities motivated me to reflect on this experience. Not that I find any pleasure in it; to be honest, it still hurts. However, I am curious to identify what learnings and takeaways there could be.

Firstly, having a good support system and not being afraid to ask for help is tantamount. My parents probably did not have enough support from their family and friends, and they did not want to feel like a burden. But it was too much for them to bear on their own. So remember: ask for help and use your support network. You can give back later, when you are stronger.

Secondly, the whole mindset of how a society deals with failure can have an enormous impact on peoples’ wellbeing. Our society has gradually become much more tolerant; today, the culture of entrepreneurship and startups is a more inclusive and forgiving environment than what my dad faced at the time. This means it is okay to take risks, accept your failure and not be ashamed. People will understand.

Lastly, sh*t happens and will always happen to anyone and everyone. We cannot control that; we have to go with it and not let it define our lives. This is an episode; it will pass eventually. Just like everything else.

My sisters and I are resilient, independent and successful professionals; we live according to our values and have a sense of freedom and ownership of our lives and careers. We can be deeply grateful to our parents for that.

But I’ve grown increasingly grateful to that failed business of my dad’s in recent times as well; the amount of learnings we got out of it would have been unachievable otherwise.

Obviously, it is much too early for us now to come to similar conclusions. It took me over 20 years to come to mine. But hopefully, at some point in the future, we can look back at this time without regrets and accept it for what it is: a part of our own identity, a part of our life experience. Something that ultimately helped us grow; that made us stronger. Wishing you and your families health, safety and a sense of belonging.