Getting second place in the PRWeek Student of the Year competition has me thinking a lot lately about failure—and what success really means.
Thanks to my eight-hour drive to school, I had plenty of time to reflect and listen to one of my favorite podcasts, “How I Built This.” (Yes, I listen to podcasts for fun; no, I don’t do calculus for fun—but no shame on you if you do).
The first thing I learned is to get a bunch of money and move to San Francisco!
Kidding. Well, kind of.
But really, this is eight hours of nerd-ing distilled into three main principles:
A surprising major theme permeating most of these interviews was the inescapable importance of being adaptable—knowing when to cut your losses and change course.
Perhaps the most convincing example was that of Burbn, a location-sharing app under development in 2008. It was a way for friends to let each other know when they’d checked in somewhere, a la Foursquare’s function today. While you may not have heard of Burbn, I’m sure you’ve heard of the app it eventually morphed into after some tinkering: Instagram.
Don’t believe me? Learn more about how a location-sharing app turned into what’s known today as the $35 billion app Instagram here.
Another funny early edition? “Zimride,” named after the Zimbabwe cultural phenomenon it mirrored. Zimride would later become Lyft because, frankly, Zimride wasn’t very catchy (but at that point, its founders had already dumped two years’ worth of hard work and sweat equity into it). Oh, and there was that tiny thing about how they totally revamped its purpose—what became Lyft began as a ridesharing app for college students to get long-distance rides. Enterprise now owns Zimride.
Some of the folks in these podcasts (namely the Airbnb founders, in this example) maxed out credit cards to finance and fund their businesses when investors weren’t biting. Almost all of them took years to turn a profit (Kate Spade didn’t make any money for nearly three years).
Richard Branson’s commentary on this topic was that he’s learned to “only go into businesses where he believes the Virgin brand could be palpably better than the others.” Perhaps this is why “Virgin Cola” didn’t work out—Coca-Cola ran them out of business because, frankly, it was just too big. Personally, I take minor exception to this sentiment given Branson’s foray into the airline industry with Virgin Airlines (because we all know where my aviation loyalties lie, but that’s neither here nor there).
Money will come eventually if you have a good idea or you’re good at what you do, but you don’t really “need” it, per se. Every single one of them agreed they “don’t really think” about the billions of dollars they’ve earned because their passion (not greed) fueled them. I’m sure the billions don't hurt, though. A certain level of scrappiness will take you far—and often that intense level of scheming and hustling only happens when you’re extremely strapped for cash.
Take Kate Spade’s husband, for example. He had no money as a college student at Arizona State University, where they met. (Now ASU is better known for having the country’s most interesting location-based Instagram feed—seriously, try it, you’ve never seen skinnier or more scantily clad college girls).
Back in the day, Kate’s soon-to-be husband, Andy Spade, ate his way through college by taking in local restaurant’s newspaper ads and offering to redo them in exchange for free food. Needless to say, Andy went on to have a very successful career in advertising before jumping onboard with Kate’s business full-time.
Now it seems as though I've shifted away from adaptability and toward general hustle, so let's move on.
Another common motif in these podcasts was the significance of taking advantage of your luck and making good use of lucky times in your life. Everyone gets lucky at one point or another. Success comes when you capitalize on it—so being aware of your luck in life is crucial.
Kate Spade’s lucky break came when she was too broke to afford a plane ticket back to Tempe from New York City after she spent all her money backpacking across Europe. Because she was, essentially, stuck in New York City, she had to find a job to pay for her ticket home. (Feeling any better about being broke and fiscally irresponsible?)
As luck would have it, Kate was offered an assistant position at a Condé Nast publication (her glamorous tasks included fetching Snickers bars for stylists and organizing shoes). It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with fashion, and she progressed slowly through the ranks as an accessories editor. I think we all know what comes next.
And what happens if you don’t feel you’ve been provided any lucky breaks? Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx and youngest female billionaire, would give you very simple advice: Make your own.
After Sara got Neiman Marcus to agree to sell her product in several stores (she flew to Dallas for a 10-minute pitch to their hosiery buyer, and, when the woman was unimpressed, took her in the bathroom and demonstrated the Spanx magic on her own body), she paid friends in various cities to purchase some so the product would move quickly off the shelves and generate buzz.
When she realized her product’s location in the store was hurting her sales, she literally bought stands, went to the stores and put them at each register and moved the product herself. Nobody who worked in the stores knew that the product move hadn’t been approved—everyone just assumed it was fine, and the rest is history.
Lastly, fill a need. These startup founders had the wherewithal to see a need in their daily life—and filled it themselves. The two founders of Warby Parker were just frustrated that glasses were so expensive and they couldn’t be purchased online, so they researched why and started working to create their own. Now Warby Parker is valued at $1.2 billion (did I mention they launched this enterprise less than seven years ago? What were you doing seven years ago? I was contemplating beginning to highlight my hair and was shifting out of my Abercombie and Fitch phase).
A lot of these startups faced seemingly insurmountable regulatory limitations, namely Lyft and my personal favorite, Southwest Airlines. Lyft had to negotiate complicated agreements with every single government of each city it attempted to enter. One of its founders said he spent a full year on government relations alone. Even though the market was there, the private transportation companies and public utilities groups were not about to welcome this competitor without a fight.
Or there were the countless attempts by other regional airlines (and legislation itself) to put Southwest Airlines out of business in its early days (a lot of which occurred before Southwest had even gotten its first plane in the air). This tumultuous history has made its way into Southwest company lore and, like many other things about the company, makes for a pretty admirable and fascinating past. Basically, Herb Kelleher (one of Southwest’s founders) just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. (Is my "Southwest fangirl" showing? I'm sorry, moving on.)
Another thing almost all of these startup founders had in common was that they worked on these passion projects during nights and weekends while maintaining full time jobs. They’d use their actual income to fund their side projects—so it wasn’t like these mega successful people were sitting around on piles of cash with idle time and thought to themselves, hm, I guess I’ll start a business.
Sara Blakely of Spanx even wrote her own patent because she didn’t have the money to pay a lawyer to do so. She literally bought a “Patents and Trademarks” book at Barnes and Noble, stayed up all night and taught herself how (then went to her day job the next day, selling fax machines door-to-door). And you thought your day job was glamorous!
And remember those Airbnb founders who were maxing out credit cards because investors’ knee-jerk reaction to their idea was, “You want to invite strangers to sleep in your house? That's weird,”? They took advantage of the 2008 election in a moment of sheer desperation and created “limited edition Obama-themed breakfast cereal”, put up a website for it and ended up making the $20,000 they needed to keep the Airbnb dream alive. (I’m not kidding, here’s the original website.)
The main takeaway
Overall, the key takeaway is that there is no singular path to success. And most times, your personal path is not—and will not seem or feel—linear.
There is no “right” way to succeed. A lot of these founders faced the incredulity, skepticism and judgment of their peers (and families, in some cases) at times before their rocketships really took off (in Branson’s case, this is literal—Virgin Galactic is his latest venture).
For every successful startup, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of bitter failures. But you know what they say: Those crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.