4 famous failures that became massive successes
Throughout my years as a journalist, failure is probably the most frequent subject I’ve talked about with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and tech industry CEOs. It’s a subject virtually all of them have admitted to being personally familiar with. In fact, most of the VCs and CEOs I’ve spoken with say they would be loath to invest in someone, either through funding or offering them a job, if that person hasn’t personally experienced failure before.
Failure is fundamental to our growth. If we can learn from what went wrong and why we know what to avoid or alter in the future to avoid a repeat. Or as Bill Gates once put it: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
Of course failure is no fun when you are living through it, and it’s often months or years before we can look back at it and recognize it for the great teacher it is. To find examples of this look no further than the four examples below of famous “failures” who would not have achieved massive success had they given up.
Colonel Harland David Sanders is one of my favorite stories of a person who turned a string of failures into success. It’s because his success–franchising his “Kentucky Fried Chicken” secret recipe, which made him a millionaire–didn’t happen until he was 62, showing massive success isn’t limited to the young and can occur any time in your life.
Before Sanders found success with his recipe, he had multiple other failed careers, including as a lawyer and as a salesman selling various wares including lamps, insurance, and tires. But what’s most incredible about Sanders’s story is that he reportedly failed over 1,000 times to sell his chicken recipe. It wasn’t until his 1,010th time in trying to sell the recipe that he got someone to bite–and the rest is history. Had Sanders decided to give up after hearing his 10th, 100th, or even 1,000th “no” the fast food industry would be a very different landscape today.
Rovio is one of the biggest gaming success stories of all-time. Its Angry Birds franchise has been a staple of mobile gaming since its release in December 2009–and by 2012 the franchise has hit over one billion downloads. Further, Angry Birds made the successful transition from video games to merchandising, television shows, and even a full-length feature film with the sequel due out next year. Given this, you’d think Rovio simply had success built into its DNA.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Matter of fact, from its founding (as Relude Oy) in 2003 until the launch of Angry Birds in 2009, Rovio pretty much only knew failure. The company had developed and released 51 previous games–all of which failed to become hits. As Pekka Rantala, the former CEO of Rovio, told me in 2015:
“When Rovio [then called Relude] was established in 2003, it was just a normal, very small startup, making mobile games. It was difficult for them during the first six years. They managed to bring to market more than 50 different games, but none of them were particularly successful. They were really tight on resources and money; by 2009, they were really close to going bankrupt. And then came this 52nd game in December 2009, and that really changed everything, as the saying goes.”
Because the developers at Rovio didn’t give up even after their 50th failure, the company now boasts almost 400 employees and had almost $300 million in revenue in 2017.
Steve Jobs and Apple
No list of famous failures would be complete without both Steve Jobs and Apple. But Jobs’s and Apple’s failure is a bit different than others on this list as the man and the company had massive success in their early years before failing hard. Jobs was famously forced out of Apple–the company he founded–in 1985. It’s hard not to see yourself as a failure after that. After Jobs’s departure, the company itself entered a downward spiral, going from the leader of the personal computer revolution in the 1970s to an also-ran by the 1990s.
Then in 1997, with Apple just months away from bankruptcy, Jobs returned to the company and by 2011 not only turned Apple into the biggest company on the planet, but fundamentally changed the computing, music, and smartphone industries by giving us the iMac, iPod, and iPhone. Think how different the tech world would be today had Jobs let his failure get the best of him. No wonder in 2005, Jobs said, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”
Perhaps the most iconic entertainment company to have ever existed is the Walt Disney Company. The company’s characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are beloved the world over. But far from just peddling in cartoons, the House of Mouse has influenced our culture thanks to everything from its theme parks to feature films. Today, Disney has created or owns some of the most recognizable brands in pop culture, including Marvel Comics and Star Wars, and Pixar.
But the entertainment landscape could have been very different if Walt Disney would have succumbed to his prior failures. In his early twenties, Disney was fired from a Missouri newspaper for “not being creative enough.” Then in 1921 Disney founded his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, in Kansas City, Missouri. It went bankrupt within two years. It’s only after this failure that Disney decided to move west to pursue his dreams in Hollywood. The rest, as they say, is history. After picking up the pieces from his past failures, Disney would found the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which would later become the Walt Disney Studio, in 1923. Over the course of his life, Disney would receive 59 nominations for the Academy Awards, winning 22 of them.
As Walt Disney said in 1957: “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”