Five individuals who failed and recovered in style

Even the most successful people will tell you that achieving greatness doesn’t come easy. Fulfilling your ambitions comes through many years of hard work and, more often than not, involves a series of failures along the way...

As Richard Branson explains: "For every success story there’s hundreds of near-misses. Every entrepreneur fails before succeeding." So what failures did some of the world's most successful entrepreneurs rack up and how did they overcome them?

Richard Branson

Virgin Cola is perhaps one of the most famous failures of the Virgin Group and Branson often says that it’s his favourite.

"It’s fair to say that our launch of Virgin Cola in 1994 was not subtle. Driving a tank through New York’s streets before smashing through a wall of Coca-Cola cans certainly created some front-page headlines, which was exactly what we wanted. With Virgin Cola, we felt confident that we could smash our way past Coca-Cola and Pepsi, our main competitors.

"It turned out, however, that we hadn’t thought things through. Declaring a soft drink war on Coke was madness. I consider our cola venture to be one of the biggest mistakes we ever made - but I still wouldn’t change a thing."

Image by Thierry Boccon-Gibod

But, the Virgin Founder says that it was still a great experience for the team and they learnt a lot from where they went wrong. "We didn’t follow our own rules, which is a cardinal sin. Virgin only enters an industry when we think we can offer consumers something strikingly different that will disrupt the market, but there wasn’t really an opportunity to do that in the soft drinks sector. People were already getting a product that they liked, at a price they were happy to pay - Virgin Cola just wasn’t different enough (even if we did create bottles shaped like Pamela Anderson that kept tipping over because they were top-heavy!)."

Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely’s career was full of failure before she founded Spanx – she failed the LSAT multiple times and was unable to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer and even failed when she auditioned for the role of Goofy at Disneyland.

However, failure was never a big deal to Blakely. On a regular basis, over dinnertime, her dad would ask her and her brother what they had failed at that week. "My dad growing up encouraged me and my brother to fail. The gift he was giving me is that failure is (when you are) not trying versus the outcome. It's really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life."

Her embrace of failure helped her when she came up with the idea for Spanx while she was working selling fax machines. Despite being told that the idea would never work numerous times, Blakely pursued the idea and went on to become the youngest ever self-made female billionaire in America.

Walt Disney

Despite being the creator of one of the most recognisable characters and the brains behind one of the most creative brands in the world, Walt Disney was once fired from his job at the Kansas City Star for lacking ideas and creativity. But he said that the experience taught him a lot – even when times were tough for Disney.

"I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young," he said. "I learned a lot out of that. Because it makes your kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that, I’ve never been afraid. I’ve never had the feeling I couldn’t out and get a job doing something."

I think it's important to have a good hard failure when you're young.

Vera Wang

The world’s most famous wedding dress designer grew up with aspirations of making it to the Olympic figure skating team. When that didn’t work out, Vera Wang took an assistant job at Vogue. Within a year she was promoted to senior fashion editor.

However after 15 years at the magazine, she was passed over for the editor in chief position. It was then, aged 40, that she decided to start her own business designing wedding dresses.

"People have done far better than me in far shorter period, but that wasn’t my story," she says. "It was brick by brick, client by client, store by store. It’s been a trip of passion, but it has not been a quick trip. Nor has it been easy. And that is the truth."

Bill Gates

Bill Gates’ first business was certainly far from successful. Traf-O-Data was a device and service that read raw data from roadway traffic counters and created reports for traffic engineers, but when they went to sell it to the local County their demo failed as the machine didn’t work.

"Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later," Paul Allen, Gates’ partner said.

Gates is another entrepreneur who has embraced failure throughout his career, with setbacks that he has faced at Microsoft and in his philanthropy. "It’s fine to celebrate success," he says. "But it is more important to heed the lessons of failure."


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