The Power of Personal Stories

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Chances are that someone else, somewhere else, has already had a similar idea to yours. You name it: space travel for tourists; an app that will become viral and will make you rich almost as quickly.

It is not by pure coincidence that certain ideas come in waves as part of much broader developments in different fields: economy, science or technology, under the aegis of which we live today. It is not therefore unusual that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are the children of the same historical era, as were Henry Ford and Karl Benz before them.

The persons named above are examples of success stories. History, however, can be ruthless. It appears that Isaac Newton came up with the idea of gravity at about the same time as Robert Hooke, with whom he corresponded intensely. Yet eventually neither Newton, nor posterity, were especially kind to Hooke.

Personal stories grab our attention, sometimes irresistibly, in a way the “About Us” section of any corporation hardly would. What is their appeal?

Sources of inspiration

Here is one possible explanation. We relate to these biographies because we all have had an idea, regardless of whether it was opening a restaurant or going to the moon, and wanted it to succeed.

In other words, we find inspiration in these examples. And a powerful source of inspiration is knowing that these big names were fallible humans like us.

They all tasted failure and defeat. In the end, however, it’s not the lost battles that count but victory in the war. These are ugly words, yet the challenges that sometimes life puts before us may feel warlike: money is short; you are left alone; it’s a long shot.

That was true for all the people named above and the countless others that make the world go round. In the words of Doris Lessing, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” She may know one thing or two about that: Lessing went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Five and Dime

In 1945, Sam Walton was 27 when he bought a Ben Franklin store in Arkansas. With his policy of pricing well below his rivals, his business was so successful that soon it had become the leading Ben Franklin store in a six-state region. Walton’s landlord wanted to buy the store for his son, Walton didn’t sell, so the vindictive landlord did not renew the lease.

He tried again in Bentonville in 1950, opening Walton’s Five & Dime. Within a decade, he owned 15 stores. Yet he wasn’t making as much in profit as he expected, so he decided to double down on the model of cutting profit margins and to make up for it with sales volumes.

Yet when he approached the Ben Franklin franchise with the proposal, its executives would have none of it. Walton then mortgaged his house and borrowed from everywhere he could to open his first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962.

At the time, Walton was 44. Two rival behemoths, Kmart and Woolworth’s Woolco, opened the same year. Yet a discount store in Arkansas was too below the radar for them.

The rest, as you now know, is history.

5 Tips to Make your Idea Last

Trite as it may sound, here are some initial conclusions:

  1. Trial-and-error is the time-tested method to put anything new into practice. There are billions on pages written on risk assessment and vision. All that is beyond the scope of this article. It is foolish to have blind faith in one’s vision as that alone has been the cause of many a ruinous venture in history.
  2. Yes, you may fail and these lessons tend to be forgotten. Yet in all success stories you will find a common denominator: pioneers always had faith in their vision. Their ideas almost always ran against conventional wisdom. That’s why these weren’t the conventional types like the rest of mankind.
  3. Naysayers are everywhere. So are rivals. Mean people, too. They will all try to undermine you or your plans. It doesn’t matter why. It’s a fact you have to deal with. Don’t let that wear you down.
  4. Trite as it sounds, it was always a challenge what propelled these people to success. What would be of Sam Walton today if his landlord let him become the convenience store of Newport, Arkansas (population 7,879 according to the 2010 census)?
  5. You will forge your own path. Nobody will fight your battles for you.

It’s Not Easy

In 1985, Jobs was fired from the company he had founded with Steve Wozniak nine years before. He came back with a vengeance in 1997, making of Apple the largest company in the world, with a market capitalization of $2.1 trillion.

In 1973, Mike Bloomberg was fired from Solomon Brothers after the investment bank was acquired by Phibro Corporation. He was paid $10 million in severance for his equity in the firm. It was, indeed, a lot of money back then, as it is still today. But he managed to turn that into the $59 billion he has today in personal wealth thanks to the famous terminals nobody thought much of at Solomon Brothers, where he worked when he invented them.

Success can bring about no small amount of grief too. You’ve probably never heard of brothers Rudi and Adi Dassler of the little German town of Herzogenaurach (population 23,000) but you may be familiar with the wares they created and sold: Puma and Adidas, respectively. They fell out very badly in 1948—to the point that even today they are buried at opposite ends of the cemetery—and parted ways, quite literally. In death as in life, they were on opposite sides: Adi set up Adidas on the north bank of the Aurach river; Rudi built Puma on the south side. On the bright side, they both made a fortune (even if the long story is a bit complicated).

Yet the one-dollar bill with the highest return ever in history was probably the one invested by three Chattanooga businessmen in 1899 to buy the rights to bottle and sell Coca-Cola. Their revolutionary idea, which at the time verged on the ridiculous, was to sell the soft drink in little bottles. After agreeing to buy the rights for $1 dollar—that’s what Coca-Cola thought the idea was worth—they were laughed off the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. But you know what they say about he who laughs last.

Check out some personal stories we helped our customers tell.