8 lessons from those that turned failure into success
I’ve been a gardener, waiter, sous chef, head of business development, and a director.
One thing hasn’t changed. My work ethic. I put as much effort into chopping lettuce 20 years ago as I do running my business today.
I’ve made many mistakes. You’ll make many mistakes too. But never underestimate the lessons you’ll learn and never give up (lessons #1, #2 and #8, these are what I live by).
Whether you’re just starting out or taking the next steps to expand your business, I found 8 key lessons for businesses to succeed despite previous mistakes. So you can learn from the experiences and insights from other successful entrepreneurs and businesses in different industry sectors.
One idea can change an industry. In fact, it can change the world. Nintendo are a shining example of how a single brainwave can transform a market, after one revolutionary game about a couple of Italian plumbers, who also happen to be brothers, took the gaming world by storm. It was 1985, just 2 years after the video game crash of ’83 and, alongside the revolutionary NES, Super Mario Bros hit the US gaming market, sending spotty, American teenagers into sweaty, excitable convulsions. It was the first game since the crash of the Atari to capture the hearts of the US market, and it was all from a simple idea produced and developed by two lowly creatives on Nintendo’s development team.
Business Lesson #1: Your team are your most important asset.
No matter the level of your employees, their ideas can be just as valuable as those higher up the chain. If you’re stuck in a rut, in need of inspiration, or looking for the next big industry trend, the greatest ideas can come from the most unexpected places. The tax industry has a skills gap and it’s becoming harder than ever to keep hold of your trailblazers, but listening to them and allowing them to add value can do wonders for your firm’s staff retention.
James Dyson is a clever chap. He’s also a very rich chap. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, when James first began inventing, it was his wife who propped up the household by teaching art. His ideas weren’t always the best. First, he came up with a wheelbarrow with a ball instead of wheel. Somehow, he had investors interested, but after much deliberation, he decided to spend his time improving the vacuum instead, which is lucky for us, because if he hadn’t, it’s unlikely we’d be talking about the billionaire founder of the ballbarrow. The vacuum revolution wasn’t an easy gig, however, with James, by all accounts, testing 5,271 prototypes before he got his cyclonic technology right. And even when his vacuum didn’t suck anymore…or did suck more…or…you get the drift, the genius inventor found it difficult to license, and sell against brands like Hoover. So, he sidestepped the manufacturers, put up his house against a loan, and manufactured the vacuums himself. His resilience has left him owning 100% of his company’s shares, which isn’t bad considering Dyson hoovers in (sorry, James!) a cool $3 billion dollars a year.
Business Lesson #2: Never. Give. Up.
Well, unless your idea’s rubbish. Then you can give up. But, in all seriousness, the success of Dyson was attributed to James’ resilience, above all else. Sure, he’s a bit of an engineering wiz, but there are very few people who would keep trying to get something right 5000 times. Your practice needs those people to ensure that you stay ahead of the competition. You can lead the evolution of tax. Be one of those people. Be like James.
We all know the story of Steve Jobs. We all wish we had his business mind. We also all secretly wish we could pull off a black turtleneck without looking like an out-of-work mime artist. Jobs was able to tell a story like no other; to sell the ‘why’ of Apple to a market of tech-hungry consumers who joined the iCult without so much as a side glance at Windows. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In a huge downturn for the company in 1985, Stevie J was ousted as its captain. He went on to found NeXT, a computer platform development company, which was later acquired by Apple, who were still falling faster than an engineless rocket. It wasn’t long before Steve was back in the driving seat, and it was his line of new, industry-shaking products like the iPod and iPhone, that put Apple back on the map.
Business Lesson #3: Accept that, sometimes, you’ll make bad decisions.
Apple’s knee-jerk reaction to oust Jobs after the downturn turned out to be a huge error. It wasn’t long before they wanted both the new software he was creating at NeXT, and their chief innovator back on board. You’re going to make bad decisions. Your firm will probably suffer at some point because of poor choices you make. But if you hold your hands up and you’re open and honest about your mistake, your team will be much more likely to help fix it.
Martin Goodman’s superheroes have inspired generations of youngsters across the globe, but, after decades of domination, the company nearly ran out of gas in ‘93. So, with glossy pages out in favour of a new, digital age, Marvel made the huge decision to move into film. Good idea, right? Not so much. Even with Stan Lee at the helm, the company struggled to produce box office hits, cooking up catastrophic snore-fests like Howard the Duck, which, in some circles, is considered the second worst film of all time after DC’s Catwoman flop. Luckily, egg-headed investor, Ron Perelman, got involved, and introduced a cheeky, Harley-riding designer called Avi Arad from a business called Toy Biz to the comic book giant. Avi took the helm and had an X-Men movie deal signed with 20th Century Fox inside a year of his appointment. It was the start of better things for Marvel and, by the time the millennium came around, a deal with Merrill Lynch gave Marvel a runway to a further ten movies.
Business Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to step aside.
Had Marvel left the ship with Stan Lee and not considered outside help, they’d have gone under quicker than a lead boat. There’s no shame in recognising what you’re good at and seeking help with anything you’re not so good at. Your firm may need to look elsewhere for expertise, and you know what? That’s okay.
Ever wondered where the name WD-40 comes from? Nope, neither did we, but we’re going tell you anyway. It means ‘Water Displacement 40th’ because the formula was literally perfected on the 40th try by Norman Larsen, an industrial engineer attempting to invent a rust-prevention solvent for the aerospace industry. First used on the outer skin of the Atlas missile, the secret formula put together by Norm and his chums is still in use today, and has been lubing up everything from cars to industrial equipment since the ‘50s. Interestingly, you can also spray it on trees to prevent beavers from chewing them. You learn something every day.
Business Lesson #5: Take the time to get it right.
As a practice, you’ll be introducing a lot of brand new stuff to your client base as you embrace ‘Making Tax Digital’. It can be daunting for both sides and, if you get it wrong, you can miss out on fees, waste time and even lose clients. When rolling something out, take your time to ensure the process is right, and trial new products or services with small groups of clients initially, gather feedback, and iterate. It might take you forty attempts but, like the guys at WD-40, if you get the formula right, it could stand the test of time and add value to your firm for years to come.
Imagine if you could have a bubbly wall in your living room. Wouldn’t that be dead cool and futuristic? No. No it wouldn’t. It’d look like a tacky 80’s sitcom set. In 1957, engineer Al Fielding and Swiss inventor Marc Chavannes thought it’d be a great idea to create a textured wallpaper, so they set about fusing two shower curtains together in such a way that bubbles formed between the layers. Thankfully, that particular bubble swiftly burst after nobody bought it. They trialled it as greenhouse insulation, but it didn’t insulate anything, so that didn’t work, and it was left to a marketing dude called Fred Bowers to think up a use for the stuff. He heard about the impending release of IBM’s new 1401 variable word length computer and pitched the product’s protective properties to them as a great way to guard the expensive new tech against bumps and bangs. IBM bought into his spiel and the rest is history.
Business Lesson #6: Fresh eyes can see things in a new light.
Had Fred not thought of a new use for the pair’s pocketed wallpaper, the world would never have been introduced to the satisfactory feeling of popping bubble wrap, and we’d still be protecting expensive goods with tissue paper and old, crusty towels. Introducing new products and processes to your firm won’t always be easy, but don’t give up on it straight away if things don’t go as expected. Get a second opinion or some fresh eyes on the project to see if there’s a different approach that could work.
Everyone has used, or at least heard of, Airbnb, the billion-dollar startup that lets users rent out their homes, spare rooms or airing cupboards directly. The thing is, it wasn’t always that way, and the platform was barely turning over $200 a week after launch. Without any substantial revenue and a dwindling userbase, the company that started as an airbed in an apartment was close to going bust. So, deflated, the founders got together and desperately searched for a solution. They noticed that every listing on their site had photos that looked like they’d been taken by a drunken baboon with a polaroid. They were blurry and, visually, did nothing to sell the accommodation on offer. They decided on a simple fix; travel out to each property individually with a decent camera and pro photographer in tow and upgrade all the amateur pictures on the site. Their revenue doubled within the week, and it was the first financial growth the team had seen that year.
Business Lesson #7: Not everything you do has to be scalable.
Okay, so you want to grow your firm, and as such, you’re looking for scalable solutions that will facilitate that growth. The only thing is, there are certain areas that aren’t working as well as you’d like. Maybe there are areas where you’re not growing at all. Well, like the Airbnb guys found, sometimes, to get that growth started, you need to think short term, and look at non-scalable stuff to get things moving. Sure, you’ll only grow up to a point, but it will allow you more time to come up with scalable ideas, bring in more revenue for the time being, and bring a bit of positivity to the situation.
IBM owned the tech market up until about 1993. They made and manufactured huge computer mainframes in house and operated a solid business model that relied on the production of expensive tech, and maintenance contracts. However, the influx of personal computers and client servers into the market was the Clubber Lang to IBM’s Rocky. They were on the ropes, and in real danger being knocked into oblivion, but they bounced back with the appointment of Lou Gerstner, the potato-headed, non-techie with a love for customer service, who was largely credited for the early success of American Express. He transformed the company’s direction by simply listening to their existing clients. He realised that IBM’s customer base loved the fact that their products and services were all encompassing, one-unit solutions or, in other words, they were lazy, couch-marrying, computer nerds. The way they saw it, once you went to IBM, you didn’t have to go anywhere else. So, he focussed on that quality and IBM have been at the forefront of the market ever since.
Business Lesson #8: Listen to your existing customers.
Your existing customers know what they like about you, otherwise, they wouldn’t be your customers. However, chances are, they’re not too fond of some of the stuff you do either. If you’re looking to grow, or feel as though your firm is becoming a little stagnant, ask your client base what they like about you, and why they chose your firm. Take the bits they love, and double down on it. It’s the best way to attract similar clients to your firm, and it’ll make your current customers even more loyal.
If you run a firm, you know the struggle of staying up to date while standing out. These are just little reminders that you can always succeed. Even if things seem bleak right now.
If you’re wondering, what would happen to your firm if you didn’t adapt and learn from your mistakes, we’ve got that covered too, check out our fallen empires stories.
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