The Simple Lesson Poker Taught Me On How To Win At Business

Mike Stopforth speaks to Heavy Chef about the lessons on failure he learnt from playing poker. Mike founded and is CEO of Cerebra, an integrated strategic communication agency that builds, engages and activates communities around brands.

There are so many articles written about the importance of failure that I’ve started wondering if I’m permitted to call myself an entrepreneur if I don’t have some catastrophic commercial collapse in my recent history. This is idiotic. It’s completely illogical. A failure is a failure, and I don’t believe failure as an outcome should be celebrated.

That said, the idea that you can run a successful business in this day and age, surrounded by unprecedented change and disruption, and not fail, is ridiculous.

I’d like to tell you I learned this at Harvard Business School, but the reality is that I learned it in an illegal dingy back alley poker game in Sunninghill.

The problem is that we don’t think of or talk about failure as an iterative process. We think of failure in black-and-white terms. You failed or you didn’t, right?

Nobody fails outright, or succeeds outright. Success,whatever that means to you, is an outcome of a collection of smaller successes and failures.

The key is failing small and succeeding big.

Entrepreneurial success and consistently effective leadership is rooted in this truth. I’d like to tell you I learned this at Harvard Business School, but the reality is that I learned it in an illegal dingy back alley poker game in Sunninghill. Poker, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, has been the source of more business lessons for me than any book,coach, talk, or course.

Mike Stopforth is the Founder of Cerebra, one of the Southern Hemisphere's biggest social media communication agencies, and now member of the Wunderman Group. 

Mike Stopforth is the Founder of Cerebra, one of the Southern Hemisphere's biggest social media communication agencies, and now member of the Wunderman Group. 

One of the great skills in poker is minimising your losses. Poker has both a luck and skill factor to it. There are hands you play thinking you’re ahead (or ‘strong’), confident as ever, but as the hand evolves you discover, either quite obviously or by listening to that quiet voice deep down inside, that the situation has changed and you’re suddenly behind (or weak).

This is when great poker players make a big call. They know, being behind, that the odds of winning the hand are now less than the tempting reward of the collective pot. It’s still possible – sometimes even as much as 40% possible – but they’ll fold. Poor poker players will keep throwing money into the hand hoping against hope that they’ll magically hit one of the two or three cards in the deck that can save them, and that only happens one in every twelve times. It’s a very emotional, ego driven strategy that can only work if you are consistently, extraordinarily lucky.

One of the great skills in poker is minimising your losses.

That’s no way to play poker, or to run a business. Like great poker players, great leaders know when their hand is weak. They know when the odds are against them. They know that the short-term pain of a potentially embarrassing fold (and the inevitable “what ifs” that come with letting a good hand go) are incomparable to the idea of outright failure. They lose small now to win big later.

I fail at least once every day. The skill and discipline I’ve had to learn is to be open to interpreting the data around me, admit when I’m behind, make quick decisions about what to let go, get over my ego, and move on quickly. Great leaders fail all the time, but they manage the scale of the failure and turn those small losses into the building blocks of their successes.

Get that right, and failure becomes integral to success, just not the way you thought.