Business Advice

You can’t have success without failure: What business owners can learn from Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and JK Rowling

Sabri Suby /

failure and success

King Kong founder Sabri Suby. Suorce: Supplied.

Look at the history of any successful person, and you’ll spot a bloody trail of failures dotted behind them.

Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes over 15 long years, before finally hitting on one that worked. As he told Entrepreneur in 2012: “Failure is interesting — it’s part of making progress. You never learn from success, but you do learn from failure.” 

Before he went on to lead Apple to earth-shattering success, Steve Jobs was fired from the company he co-founded. He’d overseen a line of product failures, including the Lisa and the Apple 3, and was eventually ousted over an argument with the board. 

Walt Disney was fired by his newspaper’s editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

JK Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before finally finding one who would publish Harry Potter. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times.

Their stories teach us an important lesson: that in order to be successful, you need to fail multiple times. If you’re not failing, you’re not smashing the boundaries hard enough.

These famous failures are embedded deep into the public consciousness, but there’s a serious problem. When we try to apply those stories to our own businesses and lives, we can’t seem to come up with a plan of attack. Even using examples of mistakes from our own lives, we seem to find it painful to look back and learn from them.

Why? Well, first of all, our approach to happiness is completely out of whack. Our society is obsessed with the hedonic approach to wellbeing, which sees happiness as attaining pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs. We’re constantly trying to chase that positive emotional high and avoid any kind of pain.

As a result, we kill any chance of failure at all costs. Even though, deep down, we know that true victories aren’t possible without some failure, we still do everything we can to avoid it. Business owners will often try to blame their failures on external factors. They are constantly on the lookout for excuses: it’s their team, it’s the competitive environment, it’s the market conditions. It’s a very one-dimensional outlook on life, and can be deadly to a business’s chances of succeeding. 

The truth is, every failure is a result of a person’s own decisions. The faster you can accept that, the faster you can start walking the path to success. Instead of blindly seeking short-term rewards, focus instead on the eudemonic approach, which involves self-development, self-discipline, and hard work. Instead of killing anything that doesn’t make us feel good, the eudemonic approach accepts that hard work — and even failure — can contribute to improved wellbeing.

In business, we are often faced with difficult, complex or challenging tasks. While we might be tempted to ignore them, we know in the long term, they will lead to success. If we can learn to appreciate the hardships and the challenges as an opportunity to improve, then facing them becomes just another day at the office.

I’m the first to admit that throughout my career, I have made many mistakes. Every single time I’ve made a mistake it’s been when my gut instinct has lost the battle, and I’ve chosen the easier path. Over time, I’ve realised that if you constantly choose the path of least resistance, you will inevitably lose over and over again. Your gut instinct is always the true champion, so listen to it.

One solution is to build failure into your business model. If you’re planning to fail, then you’ll be prepared when you do, and you’ll no longer be scared of it. At King Kong, we have built strategies that mean we only need to squeeze a small percentage of people down the funnel to be considered a success. 

We understand that while our digital marketing efforts may drive 100 people to a website, 95-99% of those people aren’t going to do what you want them to do. They are not going to convert, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And even then, out of the 1-5% that do convert, only 10-20% are going to buy. But that’s okay, because we designed it that way, and those who do finally buy are exactly the kind of champions our clients want.

But don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at some of the world’s richest people: investors. For every 15 startups they might invest in, it’s expected 14 of them will fail, and only one will crush it. But that’s the nature of the game, and the investors know that. They take the risk, because they know the rewards far outweigh the cost of failure.

So next time you feel the fear of failure creeping in, take a minute to realise the possibility of losing it all is exactly what you need to succeed. If you want to be the next Steve Jobs, you’ve got to look failure in the face, and be prepared to shoot it dead.

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Sabri Suby

Sabri is the founder of Australian digital marketing agency King Kong, and author of international bestseller Sell Like Crazy.