HR & Management
6 entrepreneurs who failed spectacularly before succeeding
8 min read
12 February 2013
If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. If certain people had not believed that, we'd be missing many legendary businesses today.
Have you failed in business in the past? You’re in good company. To quote entrepreneur Ajaero Tony Martins, “the fastest way to build a successful business from scratch is to fail fast.” So, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.
It turns out that most successful entrepreneurs of today have faced some epic failures before. However, they rose from the ashes once more to create millions.
Here are six entrepreneurs and/or businesses that climbed to the top again:
1. Colonel Harland Sanders – KFC
Best known as the man donning a beard and big glasses in the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) logo, Colonel Sanders was fired from a dozen jobs before he started KFC. It was in 1967, at the age of 65, that the Colonel found himself broke, partly due to the construction of a road that put him out of business. He wound up living in his car and driving to over 1,000 restaurants trying to sell his chicken recipe, asking a nickel commission on each chicken.
It was only at the age of 75 that Colonel Sanders finally sold his chicken restaurant business for a full $15m. Although the Colonel did not find fame before he died at the age of 90, his legacy continued through the KFC logo.
2. Donald Trump – the Trump Organisation
Well-known entrepreneur Donald Trump established the Trump Organisation in 1980 to oversee his real estates. However, in 1990, partly due to the recession hitting his many projects and excessive leveraging, Trump found himself in a corporate debt of $9bn. Had it not been for the bailout pact of some 70 banks, the company would not have survived.
This is not the end of his story, as Trump’s business didn’t almost fail once, but twice. Following closely behind the first, Trump managed to obtain a personal debt of $1bn. Both times, Trump managed to make the most of what he had at his disposal and made it back to the top.
3. Henry Ford – Ford Motor Co.
Henry Ford’s first venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, went bankrupt in 1901 due to its high prices and low quality products. Ford didn’t give up. Instead, he re-organised his first company to construct a new one, Henry Ford Company. It collapsed due to a dispute with a partner.
Upon his third attempt, he almost faced failure yet again because the low sales he achieved made it impossible to pay back investors. Moments before his yet-to-become empire collapsed, the company was saved by angel investors. Hence, Ford Motor Co. was born.
4. Lawrence Ellison – Oracle
Ellison dropped out of the University of Illinois and worked as a programmer in California for eight years. He later pursued a business with his former boss and set up Oracle Systems Corp. It was off to a rough start, and the partners struggled. Ellison had to mortgage his house to obtain a credit line, and in 1980, Oracle still only had eight employees. It was around this time that Ellison stumbled across IBM’s research paper on the programming language SQL. He chose to rewrite it to be run on any computer. When IBM released its SQL supported products in 1981, Ellis was ready and Oracle boomed.
Oracle started making promises it couldn’t keep though, and by 1990, the business was, once again, at stake. After the launch of its 6.0 version, it lost over $28.7m as clients couldn’t run it – it was infested with bugs. Deciding to start over again, Ellison fired everyone on site and put together a new management team. They liquidated accounts, tightened financial control and created a system which awarded sales reps when a product was shipped.
5. Richard Branson – Virgin
Branson’s first venture was a student magazine, which he was arrested for as he broke laws prohibiting the publication of advice on remedies for venereal disease. By the age of 20, Branson had already established the Virgin Records shop, which experienced continuous cash-flow problems, even when sales were high. To pay off an overdraft, Branson pretended to buy records for export to escape the excise tax on sales.
Virgin Atlantic was founded in 1984, starting off with one jumbo jet for a year. During the Government certification flight, birds flew into an uninsured engine, resulting in an explosion. Branson had to pull out cash from his overseas financial subsidiaries and reconstructed the company. After a court battle with British Airways – Branson claimed they played dirty tricks to steal passengers – rising fuel prices and the economic environment of the1990s, Branson had to sell Virgin Music in 1992 to Thorn EMI. It’s been a rough path; but today, as we know, it was worth it for Branson.
6. Walt Disney – Disney
Since his youth, Walt Disney wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist. He found himself constantly rejected. A reporter once told him he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” After Disney founded his first cartoon studio at the age of 22, a bad business deal made the company bankrupt. This led to a trip to Los Angeles. The contents of his suitcase: a shirt, two undershorts, two pairs of socks and some drawing material. His attempt to become an actor never came true, but he instead founded Disney studios with his brother Roy.
During World War II, the United States army took over Disney studios as a repair shop for tanks and artillery. His animators were all sent to war, including Disney. The company ended up with a debt of more than $4m as business after the war was slow. Although they had started distributing in Europe, they were having problems getting finance to the USA. So, they started producing feature films overseas.
What are the lessons we could all learn from the six entrepreneurs above?
Never give up, and
Nothing of value ever comes easy
As Henry Ford once said, “failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”