Entrepreneurs Who Failed Before Success: Turning Setbacks into Comebacks

entrepreneurs who failed before success

In the world of entrepreneurship, setbacks are often viewed as stepping stones to eventual success. Many accomplished entrepreneurs fail before business success becomes part of their story.

This article offers an exploration into the motivating and profound stories of those innovative individuals who managed to convert their setbacks into phenomenal comebacks, acting as testament to the resilience, adaptability, and unwavering spirit necessary to achieve success.

In This Article

The Reality of Failure in the Path to Entrepreneurial Success

Failure is an inevitable part of the entrepreneurial journey, shaping the path to eventual success. Numerous real-life examples highlight how failure serves as a catalyst for growth and life after business failure.

Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, who was once ousted from his own company, and Elon Musk, whose early ventures faced significant setbacks, demonstrate the transformative power of failure in building resilience, refining strategies, and ultimately achieving extraordinary success.

Understanding Failure as a Stepping Stone

Failure, contrary to common belief, does not serve as a roadblock but instead acts as a stepping stone guiding entrepreneurs on their path to success. Entrepreneurs who’ve achieved great heights understand and appreciate the inherent value that failure presents.

Legendary innovator Walt Disney once imparted, “I think it’s important to have a good, hard failure when you’re young.”

Echoing this sentiment, Richard Branson insightfully stated, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and by falling over.”

These anecdotal pieces of wisdom underscore the transformative potential of failure, encouraging individuals to continually learn, adapt, and consequently achieve extraordinary levels of success.

failure before success

33 Entrepreneurs Who Failed before they Succeeded

Here are the stories of 33 entrepreneurs who encountered a failure on their path to success, demonstrating the resilience and determination required to overcome obstacles and achieve remarkable accomplishments.

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney began his career in animation with Laugh-O-Gram Studio, which went bankrupt. He then created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but lost the character rights to his distributor. Undeterred, Disney went on to create Mickey Mouse, leading to the foundation of the Walt Disney Company, a pioneer in animation and theme parks.

2. Henry Ford

Henry Ford’s first venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, failed due to high costs and low-quality products. His second company also struggled. However, Ford persisted and founded the Ford Motor Company. He revolutionized the automobile industry with the Model T and the assembly line method.

3. Paul Allen

Paul Allen, along with Bill Gates, initially started Traf-O-Data, a business that aimed to analyze traffic data. The venture was unsuccessful, but it laid the groundwork for their future success. They later co-founded Microsoft, which became a leading technology company, significantly influencing the software industry.

4. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple Inc., which found success with the Apple II. However, after internal conflicts and the initial failure of the Macintosh computer, Jobs was forced out of Apple. He then founded NeXT and helped develop Pixar, achieving significant success. Eventually, Jobs returned to Apple, revitalizing it with products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

5. Fred Smith

Fred Smith’s idea for an overnight delivery service was initially met with skepticism. He founded Federal Express (FedEx) with his own inheritance and raised funds, facing numerous logistical challenges. His innovative hub-and-spoke system revolutionized package delivery, turning FedEx into a global leader.

6. Bill Gates

Bill Gates’ first venture, Traf-O-Data, aimed at processing and analyzing traffic tapes. The venture wasn’t successful, but it provided Gates and Paul Allen with valuable experience. They later founded Microsoft, which transformed the personal computing industry with its Windows operating system.

7. Evan Williams

Before co-founding Twitter, Evan Williams created Pyra Labs, which developed the blogging platform Blogger. Despite initial financial struggles and operational challenges, Blogger was eventually acquired by Google. Williams’ experience with Pyra Labs and Blogger set the stage for his role in creating Twitter.

8. Richard Branson

Richard Branson’s first venture was a student magazine, followed by a mail-order record business. Both faced financial difficulties. Branson persevered, expanding into a record store and then founding the Virgin Records label, which became the foundation for the diverse Virgin Group, spanning various industries.

9. Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison’s journey to invent the light bulb involved numerous failed experiments. He tested thousands of materials for the filament before finding success with carbonized bamboo. Edison’s perseverance and methodical approach to problem-solving led to numerous other inventions, fundamentally changing modern life.

10. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a news anchor early in her career, facing criticisms about her emotion-driven reporting style. She later hosted a Chicago morning talk show, which became incredibly successful, leading to the creation of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Winfrey became a media mogul and influential figure in entertainment and philanthropy.

11. Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz joined Starbucks as its Director of Retail Operations and Marketing. After a trip to Italy, he was inspired to transform Starbucks into a coffeehouse model, but his idea was initially rejected. Schultz persisted, eventually acquiring Starbucks and expanding it into the largest coffeehouse chain in the world.

12. Arianna Huffington

Before founding The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington faced rejections from publishers for her books, including one that was dropped after an initial deal. Undeterred, she later launched The Huffington Post, which became a successful online news and blog platform, eventually acquired by AOL.

13. Jack Ma

Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group, faced numerous rejections throughout his career, including from Harvard and job rejections, including KFC. Despite these setbacks, he recognized the potential of the internet and e-commerce, leading to the creation of Alibaba, which became a dominant player in the e-commerce market.

14. Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s ventures, including SpaceX and Tesla, faced significant challenges. SpaceX saw its initial rocket launches fail, and Tesla struggled financially in its early years. Musk’s commitment to his vision led to the eventual success of both companies, with SpaceX achieving groundbreaking advancements in space travel and Tesla becoming a leader in electric vehicles.

15. J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling faced multiple rejections from publishers for her “Harry Potter” manuscript. Living as a single mother and struggling financially, she persisted with her writing. The “Harry Potter” series eventually received a publishing deal, becoming a cultural phenomenon and turning Rowling into one of the most successful authors in history.

16. Colonel Sanders

Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC, began franchising his fried chicken business at the age of 65. He faced numerous rejections, reportedly over a thousand, before finding a franchise partner. His secret recipe and unique business model ultimately led to the global success of KFC.

17. Mark Cuban

Before becoming a billionaire investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban faced several failures. He started a bar that closed down and was fired from a software store. Cuban’s determination led him to start MicroSolutions, a software reselling company, which he later sold for a substantial profit, paving the way for future successes.

18. Vera Wang

Vera Wang failed to make the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, which led her to enter the fashion industry. She started as a Vogue editor and later opened her own bridal boutique. Wang’s unique designs revolutionized bridal wear, and she became one of the most prominent names in the fashion industry.

19. Jeff Bezos

Before founding Amazon, Jeff Bezos worked on Wall Street and experimented with several business ideas that didn’t pan out. He took a significant risk by starting an online bookstore in his garage, which eventually evolved into Amazon – the world’s largest online retailer and a leader in cloud computing through Amazon Web Services.

20. Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team, which fueled his determination to excel. He practiced rigorously and made the team the following year. Jordan went on to play for the University of North Carolina and then the NBA, where he became widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time.

21. Soichiro Honda

Soichiro Honda’s early business ventures, including manufacturing piston rings, met with failure and rejection, notably by Toyota. However, he persisted and eventually founded Honda Motor Co., which became a leading global automobile and motorcycle manufacturer.

22. Rovio Entertainment (Angry Birds)

Rovio Entertainment, the company behind Angry Birds, faced financial struggles and had multiple unsuccessful games before finding success. The launch of Angry Birds, their 52nd game, turned the company’s fortunes around, making it one of the most recognizable brands in mobile gaming.

23. Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn)

Before LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman had several unsuccessful business ventures, including SocialNet, an early social networking site. Learning from these experiences, he co-founded LinkedIn, which grew into the world’s largest professional networking platform and was eventually acquired by Microsoft.

24. James Dyson

James Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes over five years before successfully inventing his bagless vacuum cleaner. His persistence and belief in his idea led to the creation of the Dyson company, known for its innovative designs in household appliances.

25. Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison faced challenges and setbacks in early business ventures before co-founding Oracle Corporation. Despite initial struggles, Oracle grew to become a leader in database software and technology, with Ellison becoming one of the richest individuals in the world.

26. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Instagram)

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger initially developed a location-based app called Burbn, which failed to gain traction. They pivoted and focused on photo-sharing features, leading to the creation of Instagram. Instagram rapidly grew in popularity and was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion.

27. Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss faced rejection from 25 publishers before finding one to publish his book, “The 4-Hour Workweek.” The book became a best-seller and established Ferriss as a leading figure in the self-help and productivity space.

28. Jan Koum (WhatsApp)

Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, grew up in a challenging environment and faced several setbacks early in his career. He and Brian Acton launched WhatsApp, which became one of the world’s most popular messaging apps with billions of users, and was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion.

29. Vera Bradley

The founders of Vera Bradley, Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia R. Miller, faced initial rejections and challenges in securing funding. They persevered and built Vera Bradley into a successful brand known for its colorful and patterned bags and accessories.

30. Richard Schulze (Best Buy)

Richard Schulze experienced difficulties in his early business ventures before co-founding Best Buy. The company started as an audio specialty store and evolved into a global electronics retailer, with Schulze’s innovative approach to consumer electronics retailing driving its success.

31. Travis Kalanick (Uber)

Travis Kalanick had several failed startups before co-founding Uber. Despite early legal and regulatory challenges, Uber transformed the ride-hailing industry and became a multi-billion dollar company, changing the way people think about transportation.

32. Sara Blakely (Spanx)

Sara Blakely faced rejection and skepticism when trying to manufacture her idea for Spanx shapewear. With persistence and creative marketing, she turned Spanx into a highly successful brand, revolutionizing the women’s undergarment industry.

33. Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie started as a poor Scottish immigrant and worked various jobs before entering the steel industry. He founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which dominated the American steel industry. Carnegie later became a philanthropist, using his wealth to fund libraries, education, and scientific research.

Check out this insightful video titled “Billionaires on How to Handle Failure. Entrepreneurs on Failure. Wisdom & Inspirational Talk.” In this enlightening footage, esteemed entrepreneurs Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Jack Ma, and Mark Zuckerberg share invaluable insights into their journeys, including how they transformed failures into stepping stones for success. Prepare to be inspired!

Common Traits of Successful Entrepreneurs Who Overcame Failure

Entrepreneurs who have not only faced but also conquered failures often share an array of common traits.

These traits are integral to their resilience, adaptability, and eventual success. Presented below are the most commonly observed characteristics that set these entrepreneurs apart:

  • Persistence: This is a trait that distinguishes successful entrepreneurs from others. A compelling example is Steve Jobs, who, despite numerous setbacks, persisted with his innovative ideas and transformed Apple into a tech behemoth. His tenacity has made him a symbol of entrepreneurial resilience.
  • Adaptability: A key characteristic that successful entrepreneurs often exhibit is the ability to adapt. Elon Musk is a prime example of this trait, having continuously adjusted his strategies following setbacks to keep his companies, Tesla and SpaceX, at the forefront of their respective industries.
  • Growth Mindset: This trait, advocated by business luminaries like Richard Branson, allows entrepreneurs to view failure not as an obstacle, but as a valuable learning opportunity. This mindset propels them to continually grow, learn, and evolve, thereby turning setbacks into comebacks.
  • Unwavering Determination and Calculated Risk-Taking: Successful entrepreneurs also display an unwavering determination, coupled with a willingness to take calculated risks. These traits empower them to overcome adversity, turn their vision into reality, and achieve their ultimate goals.

In conclusion, these shared traits – persistence, adaptability, a growth mindset, and a mix of determination and risk-taking – are the pillars that enable entrepreneurs to withstand setbacks, learn from them, and emerge victorious on the path to success.

entrepreneur who failed before success

Lessons for Aspiring Entrepreneurs: Embracing Failure on the Path to Success

For those aspiring to make a mark in the world of entrepreneurship, the concept of embracing failure is a critical component on their path to success.

Draw valuable insights from the profiles of accomplished entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson.

Embrace and nurture the qualities of persistence, adaptability, and a growth mindset. See failure not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to learn, to adjust strategies, and to emerge stronger.

Boldly take calculated risks, remain unwavering in your determination, and bear in mind that setbacks, more often than not, can pave the way to extraordinary comebacks.

Charting the Entrepreneurial Career: From Owning Your Own Company to Leading a Multi-Billion Dollar Company

When charting the trajectory of an entrepreneurial career, one can observe that these industry pioneers started by owning their own modest startups, eventually ascending to lead multi-billion dollar corporations.

Their inspiring career paths underscore the transformative impact of innovation, determination, and strategic decision-making in achieving unparalleled success in the highly competitive and dynamic business world.

How Can These Success Stories Inspire Current and Aspiring Small Business Owners?

The awe-inspiring success stories of these trailblazing entrepreneurs can act as a powerful source of inspiration and guidance for current and aspiring small business owners.

They demonstrate that setbacks, hurdles, and failures are but a natural part of the entrepreneurial journey.

They emphasize the significance of perseverance, the capacity for innovation, and the adoption of a growth mindset in surmounting challenges and achieving entrepreneurial success.

The path to the summit is seldom easy, but armed with the right mindset and approach, the climb can be made and the view will be worth it.

entrepreneurs who failed before success

FAQs: Entrepreneurs Who Failed Before Success

Why do many successful entrepreneurs experience failure early on?

Many successful entrepreneurs experience early failures due to the unpredictable nature of business, the learning curve involved, and the need for trial and error.

These setbacks often provide valuable lessons, resilience, and the motivation to innovate, ultimately leading to future triumphs and long-term success.

What are some common traits of the most successful entrepreneurs?

Some common traits among the most successful entrepreneurs include resilience in the face of failure, a relentless drive for success, a willingness to take calculated risks, strong leadership skills, adaptability, and the ability to learn from setbacks and continuously innovate.

How can an aspiring entrepreneur turn failure into success?

An aspiring entrepreneur can turn failure into success by embracing a growth mindset, learning from mistakes, and adapting strategies accordingly. They should persist, seek mentorship, and surround themselves with a supportive network.

Continual self-improvement, resilience, and innovative thinking are key to overcoming setbacks and achieving entrepreneurial success.

Are there successful entrepreneurs who succeeded on their first attempt?

Although many successful entrepreneurs face failures before achieving their goals, there are exceptions where individuals succeed on their first attempt. However, it’s important to note that failure often plays a valuable role in the entrepreneurial journey.

One such exception is Mark Zuckerberg, who succeeded tremendously with Facebook as his first major entrepreneurial venture. Nonetheless, startup statistics indicate that the lessons learned from failure remain invaluable in fostering resilience, learning, and growth.

entrepreneurs who failed before success

How did the initial failures of Walt Disney contribute to the eventual success of the Walt Disney Company?

The initial failures faced by Walt Disney played a pivotal role in the eventual success of the Walt Disney Company.

From bankruptcy to rejected business proposals, these setbacks taught Disney important lessons in perseverance, innovation, and the need for high-quality storytelling, all of which became the foundation of the company’s iconic characters and magical experiences.

How did Henry Ford’s early business failures influence the strategies of the Ford Motor Company?

Henry Ford’s early business failures greatly impacted the strategies of the Ford Motor Company. These setbacks prompted Ford to adopt cost-cutting measures, such as the assembly line, to streamline production and make cars more affordable.

These operational and strategic decisions revolutionized the automotive industry.

How many times do entrepreneurs fail before they succeed?

It’s commonplace for entrepreneurs to grapple with several failures before they ultimately achieve success. The journey isn’t linear but a roller-coaster ride, marked by persistence, absorbing lessons from mistakes, and refining strategies.

Embracing failure as an instructive stepping stone is crucial. It offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to fine-tune their approach, gather critical insights, and augment their likelihood of achieving success.

There is no set number of failures before victory, as it is largely dependent on the situation and the individual’s tenacity to persist and learn.

The table below provides a succinct overview, comparing the initial failures and eventual successes of each entrepreneur. It offers a glimpse into the resilience and adaptability these individuals demonstrated in their path to triumph:

Walt DisneyFired for "lacking imagination."Founded Disneyland and Walt Disney Company.
Henry FordFailed with two automotive ventures.Revolutionized industry with Model T and assembly line.
Paul AllenFirst venture, Traf-O-Data, failed.Co-founded Microsoft.
Steve JobsOusted from Apple.Transformed Apple, introduced game-changing products like the iPhone.
Fred SmithFaced skepticism for overnight delivery service.Built FedEx, a global shipping giant.
Bill GatesFirst venture, Traf-O-Data, unprofitable.Co-founded Microsoft and became a renowned philanthropist.
Evan WilliamsFirst venture, Pyra Labs, had financial difficulties.Co-founded Twitter.
Richard BransonFaced financial challenges with a student magazine.Built Virgin Group empire.
Thomas EdisonThousands of failed attempts.Invented the light bulb.
Oprah WinfreyFired from news anchor job.Created "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and became an influential media figure.
Howard SchultzFaced rejection while pitching the idea of a coffee shop.Acquired Starbucks and reshaped global coffee culture.
Arianna HuffingtonOvercame rejection from publishers.Created The Huffington Post.
Jack MaExperienced rejections and failures.Co-founded Alibaba Group.
Elon MuskFaced setbacks and failures.Established companies like SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink.
J.K. RowlingFaced rejections from publishers.Harry Potter" series became a global phenomenon.
Colonel SandersFaced rejections for his fried chicken recipe.Founded KFC.
Mark CubanExperienced several failures.Achieved success as a billionaire investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
Vera WangFailed to make the U.S. Olympic figure skating team.Became a renowned fashion designer.
Jeff BezosFaced early failures with previous ventures.Founded Amazon, the world's largest e-commerce company.
Michael JordanCut from high school basketball team.Became one of the greatest basketball players in history.
Soichiro HondaFaced multiple business failures.Established Honda Motor Co.
Rovio EntertainmentFaced numerous failures.Achieved massive success with Angry Birds.
Reid HoffmanFaced setbacks with previous ventures.Co-founded LinkedIn.
James DysonExperienced over 5,000 failed prototypes.Invented his revolutionary vacuum cleaner.
Larry EllisonEncountered initial setbacks.Co-founded Oracle Corporation.
Kevin Systrom and Mike KriegerFaced failures with previous apps.Co-founded Instagram.
Tim FerrissFaced rejection from publishers.Became a best-selling author and renowned self-help and productivity expert.
Jan KoumFaced adversity growing up.Co-founded WhatsApp.
Vera BradleyFaced early rejection from investors.Built a successful brand known for its handbags and accessories.
Richard SchulzeEncountered challenges in previous ventures.Co-founded and led Best Buy.
Travis KalanickFaced failures with previous startups.Co-founded Uber.
Sara BlakelyFaced manufacturers' rejection.Created Spanx, a globally recognized shapewear brand.
Andrew CarnegieOnce a poor Scottish immigrant.Built a massive steel empire and became one of America's wealthiest individuals.

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Small Business Editor Nicole Ocasio is a staff writer for Small Business Trends and has been with the team for one year. She focuses predominantly on business-related topics, with an emphasis on industry-specific insights and how-to guides.