There is a cigarette paper’s difference between success and failure, and the occasions where things go awry are often the most engaging and pivotal. Failures are universal human experiences that give a story shape and make it relatable to its audience. They tell us more interesting things about a journey and demonstrate that when success is finally achieved, it is significant.
Frederick Smith founded FedEx using an essay about real time computer tracking that he’d written at university and a self-funded fleet of Falcon jets. His business model of a single carrier, end-to-end delivery service was revolutionary at the time but, while still a small company, Federal Express was hit hard by rising aviation fuel costs and found itself losing over $1 million a month.
One Friday afternoon, having had his last gasp request for funding turned down by an aerospace multinational, Fred found himself at Chicago airport on his way home with just $5,000 left in the company bank account. In a moment of pure madness (or clarity) he missed the flight home, boarded a plane to Las Vegas and headed for the nearest blackjack table. By the end of the weekend the company coffers had swelled to $32,000, enough to meet the payroll on Monday morning and to buy sufficient time to find more investment capital.
In the 1930s, while running a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky, Harland Sanders had the idea of supplementing his income by serving home cooked meals to his customers. After some success amongst locals and tourists on their way to nearby beauty spots, he opened a roadside restaurant in the same location and became popular, for his method of preparing and frying chicken.
Sanders remained quite successful until the early 1950s when a new highway was built, diverting traffic away from the restaurant. His customer base dried up and at the age of 65, and already retired, he was left with no business and few savings. He travelled door to door, across the country, to find someone who would help him sell his style of fried chicken, even cooking it on the spot for restaurant owners. Popular knowledge has it that he was turned down 1,009 times before he found a partner, and that, when he finally did, he negotiated a deal to supply pre-mixed packets of his famous 11 herbs and spices in order to keep the recipe a secret.
At 26, while struggling to publish his first novel, Stephen King was living in a trailer and holding down two jobs, as teacher and laundry worker. One night, unhappy with his writing, he screwed up the story he’d been working on, threw it in the waste paper bin and didn’t think about it again until the following day.
When he returned home from work, he found the draft story waiting for him, uncrumpled, rescued from the refuse collection. His wife, Tabitha, had spotted it while putting out the household rubbish, smoothed it out, read it and recognised the potential in it – it was the first three pages of Carrie. The finished work was turned down thirty times before it was finally published, but the first down-payment allowed King to quit his jobs and write novels for the rest of his life.
Pret a Manger
Before they founded Pret a Manger, Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham owned a delicatessen in London. Even in the mid-eighties consumer boom it was an abject failure and folded by the end of its first year, running up £80,000 of losses. Inspired by the prospect of bankruptcy they decided to take things a bit more seriously. They both quit their day jobs and began a steep learning curve in pursuit of their idea for a more sophisticated takeaway lunch offering.
They opened the first Pret a Manger near London’s Victoria station in 1986 selling handmade food from natural sources, freshly prepared in in-house kitchens. The store proved to be too ambitious for Pret’s initial market and after their first year of trading, they were still only selling 12 cups of coffee a day. It took four years to get the formula right, and to open their second outlet, but they kept faith with their original concept and today Pret is one of the UK’s most successful retailers: it has over 500 shops across 9 countries.