When it comes to starting a business, there’s no clear path to success. If there was, everyone would be doing it, right? And though it’s painful to admit, failure is often the stepping stone to success. How many times do babies fall before they learn to walk? How many belly flops do Olympic divers endure before winning the gold? How many terrible dishes do chefs make before earning a Michelin star? What separates the success stories from the failures is often the drive to succeed, and the ability to overcome the pain and the losses to achieve a specific goal.
Before you go beating yourself up about a recent setback, or even a total disaster, let’s take a look at some of today’s truly great entrepreneurs, and see what we can learn from their mistakes and how you can learn to use your own mistakes to your advantage.
Jeff Bezos is the founder of Amazon, and, arguably, the most successful entrepreneur of modern times. In some ways, Bezos was born with natural talent; he was the valedictorian of his high school class, he studied at Princeton University, and he always had an innate desire to learn and create. But Bezos’s life wasn’t all a smooth road. He was born to a teenage mother, and his parents divorced when he was younger than a year old. This challenge alone would have spelled failure for many, but Bezos persevered, and eventually became the richest man in the world, thanks to Amazon’s wild success.
And yet, even Amazon’s journey was not without failures. In 2014, the company launched its infamous Amazon Fire smartphone, whose opening price was $199, though it eventually sold for only 99 cents. Bezos lost approximately $170 million on the venture. Bezos’s other failures include Amazon Auctions, zShops, Amazon Wallet and many, many others. But he doesn’t let that stop him from trying new things.
Said Bezos in a March 2018 interview: “You cannot invent and pioneer if you cannot accept failure. To invent, you need to experiment. If you know in advance that it’s going to work, it is not an experiment.”
Oprah was named North America’s first black billionaire back in 2003, but her success would never have happened if she’d listened to those who criticized her appearance, her skin color, and her weight early on in her career. She was fired from her first job in journalism out of college, an omen that for many may have led to a career change or to serious doubts about their chosen career path.
But Oprah didn’t let this experience push her down – she used it to rise from the ashes and to recreate herself as a brilliant journalist and inspiration to people worldwide. Oprah never fails to tell others that “there are no wrong paths.[…] You get as much from your losses as you do from your victories.” She adds that “your life is bigger than any one experience,” and that you needn’t let one failure determine the rest of your life’s journey.
In 1974, struggling writer Stephen King literally threw his first manuscript into the trash in a fit of frustration. His supportive wife pulled the pages from the garbage and encouraged him to submit them to publishers. He did – and was subsequently rejected 30 times. And yet, all those failures were nearly erased when his book was finally accepted for publication, and King eventually became one of the internationally best-selling authors of all time.
King struggled not only with rejection, but also with alcoholism that threatened to derail him multiple times during the early years of his career. Against all odds, he persisted, and eventually made it big. The lessons we can learn from Stephen King are many, but the most important one, perhaps, is that persistence pays off, and that all it takes is faith and persistence to make things happen.
Most people don’t know this entrepreneur by his full name, but they recognize him by his moniker, Colonel Sanders, famously known for his fried chicken. Col. Sanders was neither a colonel nor a professionally-trained chef. Instead, he was a serial entrepreneur who held down a series of smallish jobs before finding himself running a service station in Kentucky which also sold Sanders’ fried chicken to hungry travelers. When the service station was destroyed by a fire, Sanders opted to rebuild his business as a restaurant and motel. Sanders’ turned his business from a local establishment to a bigger business at the age of 62 when he opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Today, the brand has nearly 18,000 franchises in 118 countries.
Col. Sanders may be one of the oldest entrepreneurs to really make it big, we can also learn from him that grit is just as valuable as training. Not every professionally-trained chef or business-school graduate can build a culinary empire as impressive as the one Sanders built. The takeaway: don’t let your deficits dictate your destiny.
When Drexler became the CEO of clothing retailer J. Crew in 2003, the company was fading quickly. Drexler had recently been fired from his position as the CEO of Gap Inc., but he saw an opportunity at J. Crew – and they had faith in him. He invested $10 million of his own money into the company in return for his new job title and a 22% stake in the company. Drexler’s personal investment of time and money paid off big time; he was able to turn the company’s decline into a success, and to increase revenues by 107% in his first 5 years.
Professional success doesn’t always boil down to pure brilliance, natural talent, or even a well-earned degree. If you look at people who have really built their own success, you may find these traits, but you’ll also find grit, determination, and the willingness to put in some hard work (and perhaps even their own money) into the project. There’s no question that successful entrepreneurs aren’t born, they’re made – and there’s no single recipe for success. Don’t be afraid to fail, or to try new things, or think outside the box. Don’t hesitate to persist when others tell you that you can’t or insist that something isn’t possible. If there’s anything to be learned by these professional role models, it’s that nothing is impossible.