How epic failure sets the stage for mindblowing success

In Innovation, Leadership

For less successful people, it seems, failure is always a recipe for failure; that is why they would give up sooner rather than later.

But more successful types would know just this: failure is a recipe for success; that is why they would go on and on until they eventually had a glowing breakthrough.

Exemplifying strongly the latter category is a man who, by the time of his death, had amassed a ginormous amount of wealth out of an enterprise that initially was experiencing a series of failures that only served to steady it until, when his empire eventually collapsed, he was out of the scene.

Who is this man and how did he do it?

A man who pioneered the now-common practices of buying merchandise directly from manufacturers and fixing the selling prices on items, rather than haggling, Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919) was an American entrepreneur and the founder of F.W. Woolworth Company, the operator of “Five-and-Dimes” (5- and 10-cent stores) or dimestores, which offered a kind of “rock bottom” low-priced selection of merchandise.

He was also the first to develop and apply the self-service concept with greater success.

At only four years old, Frank Woolworth would declare to his mother that he would one day become a successful “dry goods” merchant. In any case while “practicing” with his own brother the art of buying and selling, it was Woolworth that would set up “merchandise” to be sold to his brother!

After finishing his schooling at age sixteen, yet with only basic knowledge and no experience, he was clearly unfit to begin working in any legitimate store.

But Frank would apply to many shops in the area, every time being rejected. So with the loan he received from his mother, he decided to enroll in a business college in Watertown, New York, for only two terms.

In 1873, Frank worked as a stock boy in a general store in the same town, where his experiences at Augsbury & Moore’s Drygoods would serve as the starting point to his own business ventures and innovations.

Inept salesman

Yet, at first, Frank Woolworth was “by all accounts” an inept salesman. So he was instead given jobs such as washing the windows, where he found a creative niche in arranging the store’s front display. It is on record that his work was so impressive that his boss, after his first attempt, assigned Woolworth that role from thereafter.

At the same time, while at Moore’s, Frank learned the difficulty with the typical business practice, in which few items were labeled with price tickets and a clerk was responsible for obtaining an item for the customer and making the transaction.

So it was from these early experiences that Woolworth developed the notion that goods should sell themselves, somehing which would give his future stores an edge over the rest.

Some time while working for Moore & Smith, another dry goods store, Woolworth jumped at the first opportunity to sell a large surplus of goods and organized a store in Great Bend that opened on February 10, 1878, but sales were disappointing. And despite the massive effort he put to rescue the business, the Great Bend store would fail four months later.

Yet in such difficult circumstances, Woolworth would always motivate himself with, among other well imbibed philosophies, his dead mother’s words: “Don’t worry son, I just know one day you’ll be a rich man.”

Initiative and passion

Other accounts put it that, as a youth, Woolworth had read the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, admiring his initiative, passion and drive. Therefore it is not a surprise that it was after this that Woolworth’s trademark concept of the 5-and-10 Cent store, or the “Five-and-Dime,” was developed.

And he went ahead to borrow 300 US dollars and opened a five-cent store in 1878. But it failed within weeks. Undeterred, Woolworth would go on to open his second store where he expanded the concept to include merchandise priced at ten cents.

In 1911, the F.W. Woolworth Company was incorporated with 586 stores. In 1913, Woolworth built the Woolworth Building in New York City at a cost of 13.5 million US dollars in cash. At the time, it was the tallest building in the world, measuring 792 feet, or 241.4 meters.

Woolworth died on April 8, 1919, five days before his 67th birthday. At the time of his death, Woolworth was worth approximately 76.5 million US dollars, the equivalent of 1/1214th of the US Gross National Product. His company then owned more than 1,000 stores in the United States and other countries and was a 65 million-dollar corporation.

Now you see what I mean? Failure is decidedly a recipe for success: without failure there is no success.


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