Did you hear the one about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?
The thing was, he wasn’t so lucky. Oswald was Walt Disney’s first attempt at creating an iconic cartoon character. But as it turns out that, like a lot of entrepreneurs, Walt Disney wasn’t so great at business when he first started out. In fact, he was so bad at it that he had to file for bankruptcy and in the process, lost the rights to Oswald. It was almost a decade later, and once again on the verge of bankruptcy, that Disney had his breakthrough moment with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938.
The key takeaway is that Walt Disney had learned his lesson. As he later admitted, “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
No one likes to fail. No one wants to fail. But failure is a fact a life, especially when it comes to running a business. If you are going to start, own, and/or run a small business, you are going to encounter failure at some point.
As the song goes, the best entrepreneurs pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.
In the 1970s, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer in Jobs’ parent’s garage while he was still living at home. Over the next 10 years, Apple became the darling of the tech industry. Yet in 1985, rubbing the wrong people the wrong way, Jobs was forced to resign as CEO of the company he started. He spent most of the next decade in the computer wilderness, creating a company and computer that was a far cry from Apple (NeXt.) But he too seemed to learn his lesson, coming back to Apple in 1996 to lead it to even greater heights.
Jobs had this to say about success and failure while famously giving a commencement address at Stanford:
“Don't let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Or what about Honda automobiles? Honda is considered by many to be the gold standard of automakers. Did you know it was started by a guy who couldn’t find a job? Soichiro Honda tried to get a job at Toyota after the war but failed and couldn’t find employment anywhere. Running out of options, he began building scooters at home. Voilà.
Finally, did you know that Abraham Lincoln was probably our most failure-prone president? Lincoln was surprisingly unsuccessful the first time he tried many things. The key lesson is that he was persistent. He was willing to risk and fail and learn and move forward. Consider Lincoln’s pre-presidential life:
1833—Failed in business.
1834—Elected to Illinois state legislature.
1836—Had nervous breakdown.
1846—Elected to Congress.
1854—Defeated for U.S. Senate.
1856—Defeated for nomination for vice president.
1858—Defeated for U.S. Senate again.
So maybe it’s the wise Abe Lincoln who can teach us the most about how to deal with the inevitability of failure:
“My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”
About Steve Strauss
Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.
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