From Uber to Airbnb: business failures that turned fantastic

We all know the value of learning from our own mistakes, but why not pick up a few tips from other people’s business blunders too? From Airbnb to Uber, business history is full of false starts, near misses and outright disasters...

A close call for Uber

It’s the world’s most valuable private start-up. But problems began early for the San Francisco-based company that developed the controversial car-booking app. UberCab was challenged over its use of unlicensed drivers. But instead of winding up the company as ordered, the owners simply dropped the 'Cab' from its name.

This defiant move paved the way for international expansion and unprecedented investment. But it didn’t stop the complaints. In the U.S. alone, Uber has been involved in over 170 lawsuitsNevertheless, Uber continues to flourish. Customers love its services more than they care about its reputation – making investors reach for their chequebooks.

Uber’s lesson: Know your industry... and your competition

The take-home message depends on your opinion of Uber. On the one hand, it’s a cautionary tale: flout industry regulations and you risk a lawsuit. On the other, it’s evidence that competitors only get rattled if you’re really a threat. That should motivate you to get out there and show them!

Third time lucky for Ford

Even Henry Ford’s career began with a few misfires. He had two failed automotive businesses before he hit the big time with the Ford Motor Company. It may have been third time lucky for Ford, but he is remembered for being a first. By introducing assembly line manufacturing for cars, he revolutionised the industry.

Ford’s lesson: Watch the bottom line

Ford was a master of managing the bottom line, cutting costs and simplifying processes to maximise production. He even limited the Model T’s availability to black, because this was the fastest-drying paint.

Deflating news for Airbnb

Starting as a small-scale experiment in 'airbed-surfing', Airbnb really prospered when it changed its B&B model to one where people can rent out spaces while they’re away.

The company accrued massive debts trying to generate leads, and its owners were reduced to selling novelty cereal boxes. It was also turned down by numerous Silicon Valley investors. But it soon swapped cereals for millions in venture funding.

Read: Why failure shouldn't be a dirty word in education

Recently valued at $25.5 billion, Airbnb ranks third on the list of venture-capital-backed star-tups valued at $1 billion or more, behind smartphone-maker Xiaomi Corp and Uber.

Airbnb’s lesson: Being broke can be motivating

"People are willing to try new things to save money, and they’re willing to be resourceful," says Airbnb’s CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky. "Being broke brings an incredible amount of discipline and focus."

Walt Disney's lack of creativity

A high-school dropout, Walt Disney wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist but was repeatedly rejected. He was even fired for lacking creativity.

After his first animation company flopped, Disney set up a studio with his brother. They started making a series about the inappropriately named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but Walt lost the rights to his popular character. His response? Mickey Mouse.  

Disney’s lesson: Persistence pays

Disney was turned down hundreds of times when he sought financing for Disney World. But he once said: "I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it".

The final lesson: You’re in good company

A top reason start-ups fail is the wrong product, but even the heavyweights make mistakes. McDonald’s frittered a reported $100 million promoting its Arch Deluxe – one of the priciest product fails ever.

Read: The golden rule of failure - just one more time

Other products have triumphed as a direct result of failure. Kellogg’s corn flakes were the surprising outcome of an attempt to make hospital food, while Bubble Wrap came from efforts to create wallpaper.

So next time business is waning and you're feeling unluckier than Oswald the Rabbit, remember those names that nearly didn't make the business roll of honour. Understand the lessons they learned, and turn their mistakes into your success.

​​This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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