Nine business idols and their lesser known failures

You may recognise these entrepreneurs from their successes, including GoPro, Dyson, and Kentucky Fried Chicken|You may recognise these entrepreneurs from their successes, including GoPro, Dyson, and Kentucky Fried Chicken

You may recognise these entrepreneurs from their successes, including GoPro, Dyson, and Kentucky Fried Chicken

Some of the best successes often begin with failure.

If your business has hit a rocky patch, take heart in knowing that even the best and brightest business icons have flirted with failure before striking gold. 

Business is for the birds: Richard Branson’s budgerigar business is a famous failure

Entrepreneurs who fail more often than not come back swinging. Here are nine famous examples to inspire you.


Colonel Harland Sanders: From gas lamps to Kentucky Fried Chicken

While Kentucky Fried Chicken may be finger-licking good, Colonel Sanders’ early years were peppered with more misses than hits.

Sanders had a failed ferry boat business, tried his hand at tyre sales, and worked as a steam engine stoker.

One of his biggest failures came right before his biggest success. Sanders met an inventor who had found a way to capitalise carbide gas for natural gas lamps, which while inexpensive, came with a lot of environmental risk.

Sanders bought the rights to the patent and set up a manufacturing company which failed almost when it began.

Sanders owes his job-hopping to the weak economic climate during the Great Depression. He began selling fried chicken at his roadside restaurant in Kentucky, and the rest is history.

Henry Ford: From Detroit Automobile Company to Ford Motor Vehicles

Henry Ford quit his job at the Edison Illuminating Company to start his own car firm: the Detroit Automobile Company.

Backed by a well-known investor, William H. Murphy, Ford’s first venture had all the makings of success.

His prototype vehicle, however, was fraught with technical flaws and investors lost confidence in Ford and stockholders dissolved the company in 1901.

Ford preservered, refining his design for more than year, and the Ford Motor Company was born. 

Sir James Dyson: The first 5,127 vacuum cleaner prototypes

As the inventor of the bag-less vacuum, Sir James Dyson is a well-known British success story.

What Dyson fans may not know is that he spent 15 years perfecting his product, creating more than 5,127 prototypes before the famous G-Force came about.

As a trailblazer, Dyson was rejected by every vacuum manufacturing company in the UK, which prompted him to go East.

Dyson raised enough capital from sales in Japan, which helped him return to the UK and set up his own manufacturing firm.

Even then, it took many years for Dyson vacuum cleaners to take off in the UK. Now, Dyson vacuum cleaners are the top-of-the-line in household cleaning. 

Walt Disney: From Laugh-O-Gram Studio to the Disney empire

Walt Disney started his career at Universal Pictures before leaving to start his own company, Laugh-O-Gram Films.

As a 20-year-old with very little capital of his own, Disney’s company struggled to product its first major project of six animated short films.

Making matters more difficult, shortly after the contract for this first project was finalised, his client went bankrupt. That was the end of Laugh-O-Gram Films, but the foundation for Disney’s biggest business success.

Richard Branson: From birds and Christmas trees to Virgin Group

Richard Branson is synonymous with business brilliance. As the famous founder of Virgin Group, Branson’s ventures are as successful as his personal brand as a gregarious billionnaire.

In his early days, however, Branson dabbled with a lot of ventures that never took off.

As a teenager, Branson bred and sold budgerigars for a brief period in 1966. When the bird began breeding quicker than he could sell them, Branson had a classic case of excess stock on his hands. 

After closing that out, Branson began growing and selling Christmas trees. Bizarrely, Branson went out of business when rabbits ate his stock. 

All of these failures only strengthened his resolve to make it big. Branson once famously said, “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration.”

Akio Morita: From rice cookers to Sony 

Before Sony was the huge corporation it is today, co-founder Akio Morita and his partner Masaru Ibuka (pictured) wanted to produce and sell electronic rice cookers.

The primitive wooden design of the cookers, however, worked against the concept, and Morita only sold a handful of products.

It may have been a painful lesson, but the failure of their rice cooker prototype highlighted the importance of product design, a core element in all Sony products even today.

Milton Hershey: It took three failed candy shops and more than 15 years

Milton Hershey spent years learning the trade as an apprentice to a famous confectioner in Pennsylvania before venturing out on his own.

Hershey borrowed $150 from his aunt and set up his own candy shop in Philadelphia, expecting to do well in the big city.

Even after years of trying to make it work, his candy shop failed to break even, prompting Hershey to try the Chicago and New York markets.

After all three shops failed, Hershey moved back to where it all started, to the small town in Pennsylvania where he learned the trade.

A little more than a decade later, Hershey did well enough to found his company 

Soichiro Honda: From piston rings to Honda Motors

Soichiro Honda founded Tōkai Seiki in 1937 to manufacture piston rings for Toyota Motor Company.

During World War II, one of his manufacturing plants was destroyed, which was a huge financial hit for Honda.

He sold the company to Toyota in effort to salvage what he could from the loss.

Using that capital, he set up the Honda Technical Research Institute in 1946, which set the wheels in motion for Honda Motors.

Nick Woodman: From failed Funbug to GoPro

Outdoor adventurists and thrillseekers may revere GoPro as the best action camera in the market, but founder Nick Woodman had a big dot-com bust prior to his success.

Woodman founded a marketing and gaming internet company, Funbug in 1999 which attracted a lot of investor attention, securing him over $3.9 million.

However, his venture failed to make waves and closed in 2001. Funbug’s fate taught Woodman the value of market research and customer endorsement.

Now GoPro has a massive fan following, which the company banks on for marketing, sharing customer-taken videos and photos (like the one above) as a way of strengthening brand loyalty.

The risk of failure is inherent in starting a new business, but if anything, these eight stories show that trial and error almost always works as long as you learn what to avoid and adapt along the way.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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