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Failure to Success: The Bold Truth on How the Successful Fail Upwards

a caricature of Edison, Zanuck and Jobs, Titans of Business with their own stories on moving from failure to success

In business, we all love a success story. From Henry Ford to Jack Ma, Rockefeller to Masayoshi Son, we elevate the titans of industry to heroic stature. For a million (or a billion) reasons we entrust them with superhuman qualities; brains, fortitude, intelligence, even fortune-telling and clairvoyance. Yet, the truth is, although almost all of these super successful people are really smart and have a ton of drive and other positive qualities, they are far from infallible. Even Steve Jobs has had his share of duds. But because we love our heroes, we move on quickly and forget their mistakes—or the details that brought them from failure to success —while we celebrate their successes.

That’s okay, but it gives us a distorted picture of the world. Everybody makes mistakes—even the smartest among us. And in order to ultimately succeed, we have to be willing to take risks and to sometimes fail. As a reminder of this simple truth, we compiled a list of some of the most famous inventors and businessmen to revisit their moments of failure, doubt, and ultimately success. They didn’t let failure stop them. From failure to success, they got back up and continued doing what they did best—creating, building, growing!

Bold Stories of Journeys from Failure to Success

Ken Olsen, Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), 1977

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

In the late 1980s, DEC was the second-largest computer company in the world—particularly because of Olsen’s work building networks and networked computers. Olsen was simply instrumental in championing and creating this technology. So how did the man who can be arguably considered as the “father of the network” make such a blunder at predicting the future?

Well, the answer turns out to be pretty simple in his failure to success story. While the hapless phrase is very well-known and oft-cited, Olsen claims that it is a remark taken out of context. At the time he had computers in his own home for doing “computer” stuff. He was speaking about having mainframes in the home to run appliances and all of the things we associate with the “smart” house. This ideal was all the rage back in the 70s, but computer technology hadn’t yet found its way into every gadget. But Olsen had enough foresight to recognize that every home wouldn’t need a giant mainframe because the networks he was building would make wiring the home more flexible and easier.


Thomas Edison, American Inventor

“There will one day spring from the brain of science a machine or force so powerful in its potentialities so absolutely fearful, that even man, the fighter who will dare torture and death in order to inflict torture and death, will be appalled, and so abandon war forever.”

Thomas Edison is one of the great inventors of all time. Nevertheless, as to his quote, we are well still waiting for mankind to follow his advice. Edison is best known for the invention of the light bulb and the gramophone. But he also invented hundreds of other devices, including concrete pianos and concrete homes. His Edison Portland Cement Company built Yankee Stadium. Obviously, while Yankee Stadium was a success, the concrete piano and home were not.

He also invented a talking doll—which could really be considered one of the first android robots. It was very ahead of its time and a commercial flop. Batteries weren’t readily available, so the doll had to be powered by a hand crank in order to talk—and that had to be done at precisely the correct speed otherwise it sounded like gibberish. Of course, Edison was perhaps one of the greatest champions of failure, often pointing out that he made mistakes and had “failures” every day. In his own experience of failure to success, he regarded failure an important part of the process of learning and inventing.


Michael Dell on Apple in 1997

Question: “What would you do if you owned Apple?”

Answer: “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

Now that Apple has spent more than a decade in the spotlight as a tech darling, it is hard to remember that in the mid-90s many investment advisors were predicting Apple’s demise. The company hadn’t had a hit since the Macintosh. Their penetration into the consumer computer market was less than 5 percent, and they had been trying to break that ceiling for years.

So Dell was voicing an opinion which many held at the time. However, shortly after, Steve Jobs returned and Apple began a new era of innovation and ownership of some very important sectors—like the iPod and the iPhone. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, Michael Dell claims that his remarks were misconstrued. As head of Dell, he had his hands full and didn’t know anything about Apple. So he claimed he would have sold it rather than run it —at least that’s his story years later.


Steve Jobs, Apple

“A lot of companies have chosen to down-size, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.”

The man who gave us the iPod, the iPhone and the Mac, has long been regarded as one of the most creative, innovative and successful thinkers to ever guide any company in the world. Jobs was practically in a class of his own in our list of failure to success stories.

Even the thoughtful, lucky and successful Jobs had had his share of flops. He founded NeXT Computers—which was a one cubic box computer that had all sorts of innovations—, but it flopped so badly on the marketplace most people have never heard of it. Still, he pulled from the ashes the operating system for NeXT which actually became the backbone of Apple’s OS X. In addition, Jobs was also one of the early and most enthusiastic backers of the Segway—a much more public flop which is an almost textbook case of how highly secretive projects can go bad due to the lack of diverse input.


Thomas Watson, President of IBM, 1943

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

How does anyone make such a stunning blunder of a remark? A lot of people point to that statement and the fact that IBM isn’t a leader in the consumer computing market today. Many assume that he missed the boat. It is an unspoken notion that IBM could have ruled the desktop and laptop worlds if not for Watson’s narrow vision.

However, the year was 1943. IBM’s dominance of the computer market was still more than a decade away. There were almost no computers whatsoever. The German Enigma device that encrypted messages during WWII was a mechanical device. In a world like that, five computers probably seemed like quite a good number. IBM would focus on huge mainframes—like the IBM System 360 series—as well as develop the first laptop—that is, the Thinkpad—which was a breakthrough in innovation at the time and has been used in outer space, the White House, and everywhere in between. Of course, as computers became cheaper to produce and manufacture and more applications were invented, Watson has been surely proven spectacularly in the wrong.

Nevertheless, in his company’s story of failure to success: IBM continues to be a major player in the high-end computer market, rather than compete in the extremely competitive price-sensitive consumer market.


Darryl F. Zanuck, Head of 20th Century Fox, 1946

“Television would not be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

Whoops. This remark is even farther from the mark than Watson’s. Even with the rise of media access through phones, tablets and computers—the television remains king. Worldwide, practically every village and home with electrical access—no matter how poor—seems to be equipped with one of those “boxes”. Television is indeed everywhere.

Zanuck for all of his creativity, and as the leader of one of the largest movie studios in the world, failed to see the power of television. He could not appreciate that it was the stories that drew people to the theater, not the curtains and foyer. As a counterpoint, those who have predicted the demise of the movie theater since the 1940s have also been proven wrong. Theaters still continue to be popular, even among those who have televisions in every room of the house.


From Failure to Success: Innovation and Success Rely on Hard Work

Innovation and success don’t guarantee perfect vision or knowledge of the future. Those who succeed in life take risks—and that involves occasional failures. One cannot live on the edge without an occasional stumble. The key to ultimate success is to keep trying, creating and innovating.

Perhaps Edison said it best: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” So, to all of the creators out there: From failure to success, just keep at it.

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