How failure created 5 of the world’s most successful people

How failure created 5 of the world’s most successful people

The adage to fail fast and to fail often has become a mantra within the tech space. So many entrepreneurs dazzle us with their bright over-achievements. What we don’t really see is all the times they patted the mud off their pants and bandaged their bottoms after each failed leap to the stars. Here are some examples of those leaps by some of the most successful of people.

Failure #1: The guy who was fired from his own company

Let’s start with an easy one. After the development of an overpriced and low performance desktop computer, this failure was fired from his own company. He then went on to form another company which crashed and burned, again over hardware issues. This individual was strongly opposed to the implementation of a key feature of modern day iPhones – The App Store. He believed that Web 2.0 and Ajax apps were all the world needed. This person also created a premium-priced speaker system that was panned by audiophiles and silently discontinued less than two years later. And just one more failure for good measure. This person created a cube shaped computer that, though well-reviewed, sold poorly due to its exorbitant price tag.

Who was it?

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs.

The success that followed

Steve Jobs was eventually re-appointed as CEO of Apple, even after the failures of the Lisa computer and NeXT. During the interim he started Pixar with the animation Toy Story and sold the software division of NeXT to Apple. Under his leadership Apple started a tech revolution that changed the face of personal computing and entertainment.

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. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life~ Steve Jobs

Failure #2: The guy with virtually zero customers

The next failure started a business to process paper tapes generated by traffic counting boxes. The goal was to monetise this data by selling to state and local governments. The software had virtually zero customers and after the state government began offering free traffic processing services, the business model soon crumbled. Later on in his career, while being too focused on battling Netscape in the browser-space, he failed to predict a billion-dollar opportunity – search engines.

Who was it?

Bill Gates

William Henry Gates III.

The success that followed

After his first business failed, Bill Gates helped commercialise the OS and went onto create the software empire Microsoft – one of the most successful companies in history. He became the richest person on the planet at age 39. And if that’s not enough, in 2005 Queen Elizabeth II bestowed upon him the honorary title of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. ~ Bill Gates

Failure #3: Like a Virgin

Failure number three created many unsuccessful business ventures quite unknown to the public. This entrepreneur’s list of failed ventures include:

  • a cola
  • a weddings and bridal wear company
  • a clothing line
  • a line of vodka and energy drinks
  • a lingerie line
  • a line of automobiles
  • a cosmetics company
  • an international entertainment retail chain.
Who was it?

Richard Branson

Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson.

The success that followed

Even though the above (Virgin Cola, Virgin Brides, Virgin Clothing, Virgin Vodka, Virginware, Virgin Cars, Virgin Vie and all the Virgin Megastores) were all definitions of failures, his willingness to take risks has helped him build eight separate billion dollar companies in eight different industries.

You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over. ~ Richard Branson

Failure #4: Rocket to nowhere

The next failure applied for a job at Netscape in its prime. After not receiving a reply he went to their office and then left without speaking to anyone. Why? Because he was too shy. This failure then founded the company Zip2 as CEO with his brother. After many successes, the board of directors opted to replace him. He then went on to create an online payment company called In 2000 he was appointed CEO then removed from the position after an argument with the then CTO. His next venture was to found a space transportation company. The first three launches were resounding failures putting the company on the verge of bankruptcy.

Who was it?

Elon Musk

Elon Reeve Musk.

The success that followed

The online payment company he started is now known as PayPal. SpaceX’s fourth launch was such a success it received a $1.6 billion dollar contract from NASA. Elon Musk has a current estimated net worth of 11.6 billion USD. He is a bonafide real life Ironman.

Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough. ~ Elon Musk

Failure #5 (Suck)tion power 

The final failure on this list is an inventor. After constant frustrations with his vacuum cleaner’s abysmal performance, this failure was inspired by ducting in lumberyard machinery to begin creating his own. For the next 15 years he built over 5,000 failed prototypes, faced constant rejections and lawsuits and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

Who was it?


Sir James Dyson.

The success that followed

5,127 prototypes, tweaks and modifications later, Dyson created the first bagless vacuum cleaner - the DC 01. Dyson’s cyclonic vacuums became the market leader after only 18 months. Dyson began as one man trying to clean his house a little more efficiently, and has evolved into a company that now sells it’s machines in over 65 countries

The key to success is failure … Success is made of 99 percent failure. ~ James Dyson

The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fires

To fail fast and to fail often shouldn’t be the end goal. It’s about presenting yourself with the opportunity to face adversity, learn from your mistakes and move on or to back yourself even harder.

As these examples have shown, no one can be right 100% all of the time. No one can foresee everything that may put a spanner in their works. These examples show that even the world’s most successful entrepreneurs needed to weather some storms over the course of their careers. While it’s not guaranteed that you’ll achieve quite the same level of success, let them be an inspiration to what can be achieved if you use your failures as a learning opportunity.

If you have an idea and ready to embrace the inevitable failures, you should check out our ebook How to launch a start-up which will help give you all the steps to transform that idea into a business.

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