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Industry Leaders Who Failed at First

Overnight success stories can be exciting and inspiring, but they’re also few and far between. For the vast majority of successful industry leaders, the rise to the top required hard work, determination, and resilience. And surely these are the qualities really worth celebrating.

Here’s a run-down of seven industry leaders who failed many times before getting it right.

1. Soichiro Honda

Soichiro Honda once said “success is 99% failure” — something he would understand better than most. The Japanese engineer and industrialist was passionate about cars from a young age, but he overcame a series of obstacles to make the Honda Motor Company the success it is today.

Honda opened a small workshop in the 1930s and worked hard to develop the concept of the piston ring — an idea he hoped to perfect and sell to Toyota. The design was ultimately rejected and Soichiro endured ridicule from his peers when he returned to school.

Unperturbed, Honda went on to create a small two-stroke motor in the wake of World War II. The motor was designed to be directly attached to bicycles and required very little gas, an important feature mid-war when gasoline was in short supply. Not long after, the Honda Motor Company was founded and its first motorized bike was released in 1949.

2. Milton Hershey

The founder of the beloved chocolate manufacturer, Hershey, had such a rocky start in life that there is a museum exhibit at The Hershey Story entitled Failures to Fortune.

Throughout his childhood, Hershey’s family moved around frequently. He attended six different schools and eventually dropped out of formal education at age 13 with plans to learn a trade. A couple of years later, in 1872, he earned an apprenticeship with a candy maker, which ignited his love for the sweet stuff and led to him opening his first shop in Philadelphia in 1876 and a second in New York City.

Both stores ultimately failed due to a lack of finances, but Hershey remained determined to realize his dreams. He launched a new business with a focus on caramels and opened up shops across the U.S. In 1900, the business was sold for $1 million and the Hershey Company factory opened its doors five years later.

3. James Dyson

Dyson vacuum cleaners are renowned for being the best of the best. But perhaps that’s because creator James Dyson endured a long and arduous development process to get his product just right.

He developed 5,126 prototypes and used all his savings over the course of 15 years before finalizing and launching the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, which went on sale in stores in 1993.

4. Frank Winfield Woolworth

During his time working at a general store in 1878, Frank Winfield Woolworth was responsible for setting up and staffing a five-cent merchandise table. Inspired by this experience, Woolworth vowed to launch his own store — stocked exclusively with five-cent products.

His first attempt to open a store in Utica, New York, in 1879 did not go according to plan, but Woolworth persevered and later opened a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By 1905, the “F. W. Woolworth & Company” was formally incorporated and, four years after that, Woolworth opened up a chain of stores in the UK.

In later years, Woolworth’s stores in the U.S. faced tough competition from other discounted retailers. The U.S. stores might have closed down in 1997 but by this point, the company had endured decades of success, a testament to Woolworth’s business intuition and hard work.

5. Fred Smith

FedEx is a global leader in the courier and local delivery services industry, generating almost $84 billion in annual revenue in 2021 alone. It’s hard to imagine a world without companies like FedEx, which provide efficient and convenient delivery services. Nonetheless, when founder Fred Smith first pitched the idea during a Yale University Business Management class in the 1960s, he was told the business wasn’t feasible.

Despite this negative feedback, Smith went on to raise $91 million in venture capital and founded Federal Express in 1971. The next 26 months were challenging to say the least. At one point, Smith flew to Las Vegas and won $27,000 at blackjack, which was used to pay off some of FedEx’s extensive debts.

Remarkably, the company had stabilized by 1976, went public in 1978, and continues to turn massive profits today.

6. Henry Ford

Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry by introducing the first assembly line for the mass production of an entire vehicle. But Ford certainly didn’t enjoy overnight success.

Ford convinced William H. Murphy, a Detroit businessman, to back his automobile production on not one but two occasions. The first time, Ford’s desire to create the perfect automobile left Murphy feeling restless, leading him to abandon the venture.

Ford convinced Murphy to give him a second chance but things quickly unraveled again. Ford felt Murphy had unrealistic expectations and quickly grew resentful when an outside manager was hired to supervise his efforts. He promptly left the company, earning himself a terrible reputation in the process.

This double failure might well have ended Ford’s career but he stayed strong, kept searching, and eventually found a new investor in Alexander Malcomson. Malcomson was far more willing than Ford’s former investor to take on a little risk, and he and Ford went on to develop the famous Model A car in 1904.

7. Thomas Edison

No one could dispute the influence and success of Thomas Edison. By the time he died at 84 in 1931, Edison had amassed a whopping 1,093 patents. This included 389 patents for electric light and power and 195 patents for the phonograph.

Despite his many successes, Edison was not a stranger to failure. In childhood, a school teacher informed him that he was “too stupid to learn anything,” and suggested he go into a field that did not require intelligence.

His setbacks didn’t stop in adult life. Indeed, there are entire articles dedicated to the many failures of Thomas Edison, referencing everything from talking dolls to electric pens.

Edison is perhaps best known for inventing the lightbulb, but even this was not an overnight success story. The inventor readily admits that it took around 10,000 experiments to get it right. “When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work,” he said.

Source: Thomas Insights

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