Failure Is An Option: 5 Famous Entrepreneurs that Failed Before They Succeeded

Failure happens. It is the nature of a startup and the nature of entrepreneurship to not always succeed. But that’s okay. Some of the most famous entrepreneurs had to fail before they ultimately succeeded. Companies that have become household names have gone through tribulations that tested their passion, stretched their resources, and flirted with failure. However in the case of every person on this list, they were able to make it to the wild success that has made them an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Oprah Winfrey – Founder & CEO, Harpo Productions

Fresh out of university, Oprah Winfrey was offered a job at Nashville’s CBS local station as their first female African-American news anchor. Looking to grow her career, she moved on to become an anchor at a news station in Baltimore before being fired for not being fit for TV and demoted to reading headlines on a morning program. However, it wasn’t long until she became the host of “Baltimore is Talking.” She left her troubles in Baltimore behind to host the low-rated morning talk show “AM Chicago.” In less than a year she was able to make the program the number one talk show in Chicago. You know what happened next. After acclaim for her performance in “The Color Purple,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was launched and dominated the morning talk show circuit for 25 years.

Oprah had to endure humiliation and harassment in Baltimore, however she persevered. “Not all my memories of Baltimore are fond ones, but I do have fond memories of Baltimore, because it grew me into a real woman. I came in naive, unskilled, not really knowing anything about the business — or about life. And Baltimore grew me up,” she said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun.


Nick Woodman – Founder & CEO, GoPro

A GoPro is as much of a staple in American sports culture (or culture in general) as cracker jacks. However, for founder Nick Woodman the GoPro was truly a “third time’s the charm” moment. Prior to the creation of the versatile, indestructible camera, Woodman launched the e-commerce website EmpowerAll, which sold electronic goods at a discount. The company was unable to turn a profit and shut down. He followed up with a marketing company called FunBug, which he was able to fund with $3.9 million from investors. However, as the company wasunable to find a sustainable user base, he had to close, which lost his investors millions.

However, failure did not deter Nick. While on a surfing trip, he went on to create a camera that athletes could wear on their wrists to capture up close pictures of the action. This is what became the first incarnation of the GoPro. With investments from his parents and income from selling shell necklaces out of the back of his car, Woodman was able to create a company that is now publicly traded after it launched to an IPO that defied expectations.

Masaru Ibuka – Founder, Sony

You may not know his name, but you certainly know his company. Masaru Ibuka went from inventing a rice cooker that didn’t work to co-founding a Fortune 500 company. However, his road to success was rocky at best. Following the Second World War, Ibuka founded the “Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute.” However, the problem was that they didn’t know what to do. Paying small salaries out of his already small savings, Ibuka needed to find something for the employees and the company to accomplish. Seeing an opportunity in the radio market, — the public was looking to hear the news following the war — Ibuka and the company began repairing radios and creating adapters to make small and medium sized radios into an all-wave receiver.

Since some of the radio servicemen who made house calls were paid in rice, Ibuka looked to create an electric rice cooker. Following the war, there was a surplus in electricity, which he wanted to take advantage of. However, due to the specific conditions that the rice had to be cooked in, the result was usually inedible. For the company, it was their first and most stinging failure. However, Ibuka and co-founder Morito persevered and created “Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation,” which grew to become the multinational conglomerate we know as Sony.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (L) looks on during a news conference at company headquarters in Redmond, Washington June 15, 2006. Microsoft announced that effective July 2008 Gates will transition out of a day-to-day role in the company to spend more time on his global health and education work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  After July 2008, Gates will continue to serve as the companyÕs chairman and an advisor on key development projects.  Robert Sorbo/Microsoft/Handout

Bill Gates – Founder & CEO, Microsoft

Ever heard of Traf-O-Data? If you haven’t, it’s probably because it was the failed first business from former richest man in the world Bill Gates. The software was meant to read and interpret traffic data from counters installed in roads to provide local governments insight on traffic patterns. The computer was meant to digitize the formerly pen and paper process, however it was buggy at best and even did not work during a demonstration to a local government official.

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Despite the middling success of Traf-O-Data, Gates and co-founder Paul Allen learned more about the software they were creating. Allen has said “even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later.” The company eventually grew to become the world’s largest software maker, which is surprising considering its founders started with a product that didn’t even work.

Colonel Harland Sanders – Founder, Kentucky Fried Chicken

The prime example of an entrepreneur that made it late in life has to be the famous Colonel Sanders (yes, he was real), who founded KFC in his 60s. In 1939, Colonel Sanders converted his then service station to a full-fledged restaurant after his fried chicken with 11 herbs and spices cooked in a pressure cooker became a reason people visited the stop. Following the success, he made deals with several local restaurants to sell his chicken for a royalty. However, failure hit when an interstate bypass took traffic away from his restaurant, which forced him to close in 1956.

This failure did not deter the Colonel from further pursuing the franchising of his chicken, so he packed his pressure cooker and went on a road trip stopping at restaurants to cook his chicken for them. His perseverance led to nearly 600 restaurants selling his chicken in 1963. He sold his company to a venture capitalist, however friends of his have said that he cared more about being known for his cooking rather than money. KFC is now the 11th largest fast food company in the world.

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