November 2011 Turning Failure into Success
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Turning Failure into Success

By Steve Strauss. ARCHIVE:

One thing I know is that business failure can lead to business success – if the right lessons are learned:

  • Ray Kroc never finished high school, was a musician, a salesman, a district manager for a paper cup company, and a promoter of a milk shake machines - before starting McDonald's at the age of 52
  • P.T. Barnum filed for bankruptcy, and then he started his circus
  • John Henry Heinz's company filed for bankruptcy in 1875. The next year he invented a nice little condiment - known as ketchup
  • Henry Ford's first car company filed for bankruptcy, and his second car company failed. His third business was the Ford Motor Company.

So failure in one business does not necessarily mean that all subsequent endeavors will fail. The key as I see it is perseverance, and that the right lessons be learned from the failure.

In the early 90s I graduated law school. I worked for a while at a great law firm, and then went to work for what turned out to be a not-so-great law firm. My boss at the second firm was a very difficult, impatient, hard to please person, and being the novice that I was, I didn't please him. Though it sounds like something out of a Dickens novel, a few days before Christmas, with a baby at home and my wife pregnant with our second child, the firm fired me (ostensibly because I didn't write well enough – ha!)

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My lesson was that I wasn't meant to work for other people. Has my entrepreneurial road always been easy since then? No, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Discovering that my mistake was that I was not cut out to be an employee has made all the difference.

The secret of turning business lemons into lemonade is proportional to one's ability to persevere in the face of adversity, figure out what is going wrong, and then go out there again and do things differently.

That is just what David Neelman did.

A college dropout, but a natural entrepreneur, Neelman started his first discount travel business at the age of 23. By the age of 24, he was out of business, filed bankruptcy and got a job at a travel agency. 10 years later, he started a small discount airline out of Salt Lake City known as Morris Air. Southwest bought him out soon thereafter and he went to work for Southwest.

Southwest fired Neelman five months later.

What did Neelman do? He kept going. Neelman learned his business lessons, and decided to start a new airline, one he would call Jet Blue. Though now is a terrible time for most airlines, Jet Blue is not most airlines. The company continues to grow, offers discount travel on a fleet of new planes, and still gets high rankings for customer satisfaction, despite some issues.

No, owning a business is not for everyone. But by the same token, don't conclude that failure in one venture necessitates failure in all subsequent ventures. The experiences of some of our best entrepreneurs dictate otherwise.