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The Couple Who Sold 300 Million Toys Reveal A Brutal Truth About Success Few People Are Willing to Admit

Inc. colleague Bill Murphy Jr. tells this story in a recent edition of his excellent daily newsletter, Understandably: In 1943 Richard James was working on a way to use tension springs to keep instruments on ships in place when they encountered rough seas. 

One day he accidentally dropped one of his springs. The spring “stepped” down a shelf, a stack of books, a table and across the floor where it coiled back up and stood upright.

Richard thought it was cute. Richard’s wife Betty saw its potential as a toy and called it a “Slinky.” They borrowed $500 (over $7,000 today) to finance the production of 400 units. 

Like all entrepreneurs, the Jameses had high hopes. And like many entrepreneurs, those hopes were dashed. As Bill writes, the Slinky was a “pure dud.”

Fail Fast, Fail Often?

At this point, conventional entrepreneurial wisdom would say Richard and Betty should have moved on. Taken their lumps. Absorbed their lessons learned.

Fail fast, fail often, fail better, and fail forward.

Instead, they stayed the course. And their big break (because where persistence is concerned there’s always a big break, even if the moment is only apparent in hindsight) came in 1945 when they convinced a Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to let them build a Slinky display during the Christmas season. The sight of Slinkys marching down a ramp caused a sensation. 

In less than two hours their entire inventory sold out.

Fortunately, Richard soon invented a machine that could coil 80 feet of wire into a Slinky in approximately 10 seconds. The appeal of the toy–and the success of Betty’s, “It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky, for fun it’s a wonderful toy” jingle–sparked sales of nearly 100 million units over the next few years. To date, over 300 million Slinkys have been sold.

Or Stay the Course?

Thomas Edison is often held up as the, “fail fast, fail often” poster child. After all, he’s the, “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” guy.

He’s legendary for having tried a reported 1,000 times to invent the light bulb, saying, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Lost in that story is the fact Edison didn’t try 1,000 different things. He tried one thing: To invent a light bulb.

He didn’t change direction. He didn’t change strategy. He didn’t pivot. 

His 1,000 “failures” were simply attempts to do one thing. Sure, he was failing fast and failing often, but that’s because he was trying fast and often. His success was the result of perseverance.

Richard and Betty’s success was the result of perseverance.

When others give up, leave, or stop trying, the last person left is often the person who wins. Other people may be smarter, better connected, more talented, or better funded–but they can’t win if they aren’t around at the end.

Granted, sometimes it does make sense to give up on ideas. Or projects. Or even businesses. But not because you’re “supposed” to give up in a relentless pursuit of whatever might be next.

If you still believe in your idea, your project, or your business, don’t see failure as a signal to stop. See each failure as another step in the process of trying, learning, adjusting, adapting, and trying some more. 

After all, you haven’t truly failed until the moment you decide to give up. Especially on yourself.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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