Big Brands Built on Failure: From Business Disaster to Breakthrough

Edisons of the entrepreneurial world have one crucial quality in common- perseverance. Here are top failures in business which became stepping stones to success.


Are you frustrated because the idea you had been working on for months just got rejected? If you’re feeling too discouraged and thinking to give up, we will request a few minutes from you. Read till the end of this article, and who knows, it might help change your perspective. You must have heard the phrase “failures are the stepping to success.” It is not just a phrase, but many of today’s successful entrepreneurs have failed in life before getting their breakthrough. From getting fired from a job to going into bankruptcy, here are some inspiring stories of ten personalities who had seen it all. If you are feeling low or demotivated, these stories of business failures morphing into success will definitely make you feel better. 

The Story of Walt Disney

Now, who doesn’t love Mickey Mouse or have not heard about the famous theme park – The Disney World and the Disney Parks. But do you know that the founder of Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney Productions was once fired from the job of an editor of a newspaper for not having good ideas? Later, Walt Disney, along with his brother Roy, co-founded Walt Disney Productions, one of the best-known motion picture production companies globally. Disney was known for his innovative cartoon characters that helped him win 22 Academy Awards in his lifetime. Disney has produced more than 100 feature films. The first full-length animated movie was the famous Snow White and Seven Dwarfs premiered in Los Angeles in 1937. The film earned a whopping $1.499 million even though the movie was released during the time of the Great Depression. The movie won 8 Oscars. Some of the popular Disney movies are Pinocchio, Cinderella, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, etc. Disney passed away in 1966 after suffering from lung cancer. Today the Walt Disney Company is valued at $200 billion. 

RH Macy’s Business Failures Ignited his Innovative Spirit

RH Macy, the founder of one of the largest departmental stores globally, had a string of failed retail businesses in his early career. Early in 1858, RH Macy opened the first department store in one of New York City’s low-rent districts. The lone department store in the area, Macy’s, made $ 11.08 on the first day of its opening. In the first year, the business made $ 85,000 in sales. Over the next few years, Macy’s saw tremendous growth and acquired 11 adjacent buildings to launch its modern departmental store. One of the reasons for Macy’s success was its innovative marketing strategy. For example, he eliminated the common practice of bargaining and stated the newspaper ads’ exact price. He also offered money backs and introduced the concept of window shopping. Macy’s also offered made-to-fit in-store clothing for men and women and introduced the concept of buying goods only with cash. Macy’s gained its popularity for its innovative colored bath towels, tea bags, and Idaho baked potatoes. 

Thomas Edison

All of us know about Thomas Edison and his biggest innovation: the modern-day electric bulb. But, do you know that Thomas Edison was once expelled from school and rejected from several jobs? When asked by a reporter how he felt about the 1000 rejections, he mentioned that he didn’t fail 1000 times, but it took 1000 steps to invent the electric bulb. You will be surprised to know that Thomas Edison holds more than 1000 patents to his name. His name is ached in some of the path breaking technologies like the electric bulb, batteries, phonograph, etc. What is inspiring about Edison is that he never saw giving up as an option. He saw his failures as opportunities to learn and explore more. For example, one of his early inventions and patented products was an electronic voting recorder. The machine would allow officials to cast their votes to a central tallying machine that could count the vote automatically. But, when he pitched his plan, it was rejected by the officials. This taught him an important lesson. Don’t work on a product that doesn’t have a market yet. 

His other invention was an electric pen. The electric pen powered by a small electric motor and battery relied on a handheld needle that moves up and down as a person writes. The pen would punch tiny holes so that person could create a stencil of their documents easily. However, there were several problems with the innovation. Although Edison didn’t see success, it led ways for other innovators. Albert B. Dick bought one of the patented technologies of the electric pen to create the mimeograph, a stencil copier that quickly became popular. While you may find it hard to believe, the electric pen was the predecessor of the modern-day tattoo pen.

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RH Macy, the founder of one of the largest departmental stores globally, had a string of failed retail businesses in his early career.

N.R. Narayana Murthy

N.R. Narayana Murthy, also known as the father of the IT Sector in India and the co-founder of Infosys, needs no introduction. But life has not been easy for him, nor was he born rich. What made him different was his indomitable self-belief and the never-give-up attitude.

After finishing his studies, he started his first entrepreneurial venture known as Softronics around the 70s. Unfortunately, after a year, his company failed and was shut down. He was left with no option but to take a job in Patni Computer Systems. But his entrepreneurial mind didn’t let him settle in his job. In 1981, Infosys was born. Narayana co-founded the company along with his six friends. The company was operated from Narayana’s home in Pune while his wife, Sudha Murthy, worked outside to keep up the household expenses. The company later moved its base to Bengaluru when it got its first client from the US. The company has gone through many trying times, but his grit and passion have helped the company sail through all the odds smoothly. 

How Sunil Bharti Mittal Transformed his Business Failures into Opportunities

Sunil Mittal borrowed 20,000 rupees from his father to embark on his entrepreneurial journey at 18. His first business was making crankshafts for local bicycles manufacturers. Within a few years, he set up two more businesses. He worked hard in his initial days, putting in almost 14-16 hours every day. However, soon he realized that his market would not expand, so he sold out his businesses and moved out of Mumbai. In the 80s, he started an import company under the name of Bharti Overseas Trading Company. He started importing Suzuki Motor’s portable electric power generators from Japan. His business was rolling well when the government imposed a ban on importing generators, and the manufacturing right was granted to two companies. Sunil Mittal’s business collapsed overnight. But his next opportunity came calling soon after. While he was in Taiwan, he saw the popularity of push-button phones, something India has not seen yet. He foresaw a big opportunity in the telecom business and embraced it wholeheartedly. He started with marketing fax answering machines and telephones under the brand name Beetle. Later he bid for one of the four telephone network license auctions in India. As he had prior experience in the telecom industry, it was easy for Mittal to grab the deal. Today his company Bharati Cellular Limited provides cellular services under the brand name AirTel. The company also has a major role in bringing down the STD/ISD rates in India. Mittal won Padma Bhusan by the Government of India in 2007 for his immense contributions.

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N.R. Narayan Murthy started his first entrepreneurial venture known as Softronics around the 70s. Unfortunately, after a year, his company failed and was shut down.

Ritesh Agarwal – the Founder of OYO Rooms

The company started as a place for bed and breakfast. But the company failed soon after due to poor management that was backed by an incapable team. But Ritesh Agarwal didn’t give up. In 2013, he started again from scratch. This time he made sure to do his groundwork well by setting up a proper team in place. The company, standardized budget hotels in its technology-enabled network, boosts the budget and economy hotels in the Indian Hospitality industry. 

Bill Gates

Surprised to see this name on the list of business failures? Before founding Microsoft, Bill Gates and his friends founded Traf-O-Data. The system was used to record traffic data, feeding it back to the government authorities. But the business failed soon due to a flawed business model. Between 1974 and 1980, Traf-O-Data had a net loss of $ 3,494. Bill Gates also dropped out of Harvard. But his passion for entrepreneurship and love for computers later brought him opportunities for founding Microsoft, the world’s largest computing company. Microsoft went public in 1986. By the end of the year, Gates was the youngest self-made billionaire. Since then, Microsoft saw an upward growth trajectory and was the biggest company in the world when Google was founded in 1998. Bill Gates and Microsoft’s journey has been a tremendous one, and what we could learn from Bill Gates is his amazing perseverance, willingness to learn and grow, and focus on things that he is truly passionate about. 

Henry Ford and his Business Failures

Known as one of the biggest businessmen and philanthropists, Henry Ford has faced several business failures in his early ventures. He burned up all the money from his investors in his initial days without producing a car. His Detroit Auto Company went for bankruptcy. His cars’ sales failed drastically in the 1920s because he refused to update the Model T car. He was also unsuccessful in his political career. But all these business failures couldn’t stop him. Instead of giving up, he saw his business failures as an opportunity to unlearn and relearn. Thus, he refined the Model T manufacturing, which helped him minimize the manufacturing time from 14 hours to 90 minutes. 

Richard Branson

Although one of the richest persons in the UK, and Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines being two well-known brands under his belts, do you know that he also founded two other companies, Virgin Vodka, and Virgin Cola? You didn’t hear the names of the latter two because they ended up in the list of his business failures. Virgin Cola failed because although it was a great brand, it was nothing unique, and it was easy for Coke to drive them out of business. 

Soichiro Honda

Soichiro Honda applied for a job as an engineer at Toyota. But his application was rejected, and he was turned down. With no job, Soichiro Honda started making scooters at home. He went to his neighbors to sell these scooters that he made. Thus, the famous automobile company Honda was formed with support from his family. Honda became the largest motorcycle manufacturer and one of the largest automobile businesses in the world. 

If you had business failures in the past, here are some key pointers to help you start again.

  • Take a break and then try to analyze why the business failed. What didn’t work out? How could you have done it differently?
  • Find your calling. What is the product or solution you are really passionate about? 
  • Set clear goals and align your team
  • Make a solid team
  • Last but not least, be resilient and learn never to give up

The Takeaway from Famous Business Failures

As we mentioned before, ‘business failures’ are the stepping stones towards success. Don’t let these failures demotivate you. Hold yourself up, take inspiration from the life stories of these legends and start afresh. Remember, success is just around the corner. 

Chayanika Sen
Chayanika Sen
Over a decade of experience in Corporate Communication Chayanika writes on Human Resources, Recruitment, Marketing, Employer Branding and Thought Leadership.

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