How Failure Helps You Have Success

Years ago, my buddy Mike Maddock told me about Larry Walters, the California truck driver who became famous when he flew to 15,000 feet… in his lawn chair. (Read the story in Maddock’s book, Free The Idea Monkey.) Walters’ eyesight kept him from his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, so he cooked up a plan to make it to the friendly skies.


The Flying Lawn Chair

After tying 45 helium-filled weather balloons to his lawn chair, Walters the “Lawn Chair Pilot,” defied all of the people who thought he was a complete nutcase and actually flew straight up out of his backyard… and into controlled airspace.

Walters assumed he could descend easily and safely by using his pellet gun to shoot the balloons one at a time, but things didn’t go exactly to plan. He ended up landing on some power lines, causing a blackout in a neighborhood in Long Beach, and SHOULD have dropped to his death.

But he didn’t. For forty-five minutes, Larry Walters flew. He flew.


Failure Is Natural

Nature is all about failure. Most seeds don’t take root. A pine tree could drop 1,000 pine cones – right onto the hood of your car, thank you very much – but how many will actually become trees? (No seriously… how many? I searched for the answer for this, so if you know, please write it in the comments. I MUST KNOW!) You certainly don’t end up with 1,000 new trees on your property, so in theory, most of those pinecones are failures.

But not all of them.

Failure is not the opposite of success; failure is part of your success. You have to keep failing, until your great idea or brilliant strategy hits. As Maddock says in his book, we should not seek failure, but we shouldn’t avoid it either. Because if you avoid it, it means you’re not trying. Remember, you can strike out thousands of times and still make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but you’ll never get anywhere near it if you stop swinging.


The Spanx Lesson

Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, is not only a billionaire; she is the youngest self-made woman on the Forbes Billionaires List. In a recent interview she talked about how her father taught her to take risks. Every day he would ask her, “How did you fail today?” This spirit stayed with her and fueled her passion, empowering her to take chances – and lots of ‘em – until she pulled off the big one.

Do you think Blakely would be sitting on the massive tummy-tuckin’, thigh-squeezin’ empire if her Dad hadn’t instilled the value of risk taking, of simply putting yourself out there every day, regardless of the outcome? I doubt it. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with thousands, millions of brilliant ideas that never took root because someone let their fear of failing kill the dream.

I’ve got a bit of Larry Walters and Sara Blakely in me and you do, too.  Lord knows I’ve had my share of failures (perhaps that’s the part of me that is pine cone part of me), but I always get back up. More importantly, I always look at failure as an opportunity. I don’t just walk away from it and start over; I try to figure out how to make it work for me.


The Failure of “The Toilet Paper Guy”

My best successes have gained momentum off of my failures. If you were to look in my basement in early 2009, just a few months after the release of my first book, The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, you would have determined the book was a total failure. There sat rows and rows of boxes filled with books I had expected to sell in the first week of my launch.

I had this crazy notion that I would sell tens of thousands of books almost immediately, and since I didn’t want to run out, I ordered 25,000 copies of my book. I now know that most nonfiction books will not even sell 500 copies in their lifetime, and that my order was over the top, to say the least. (Actually, I’m not sure knowing that fact would have deterred me. I really believed my book would be an instant bestseller.)

When a few weeks after the September, 2008 launch I’d only sold a few hundred books, I was crushed. But the deepest part of the failure was when I received a bill from the Book Masters warehouse — $700 for one month of storage. Not only had I spent a fortune printing the books, now I had to cough up $700/month to keep living that failure over and over again.

I decided to truck the books to my house, leaving about 4,000 books at Book Masters as insurance policy (in case my house burned down, or I completely lost my mind and dumped all of the books in the river).


Painting Yourself Into A Corner

I’ll never forget the day the books arrived. A few buddies helped me unload over 400, 40-lb boxes – that’s eight TONS of books. By the end of the day, it was just me hauling the last hundred or so boxes. Box by box, step by step, I carried my failure into the house, down the steps, into my basement. My knees were aching beyond belief – it’s the most pain I’ve ever experienced – worse than any of my sports injuries from the VT lacrosse days. And it was, in my mind, the worst kind of failure: In ordering so many books, I had painted myself into a corner.

That day, after I stored the last box and sat down to ice my throbbing, nearly numb knees, I knew I had to move heaven and earth to get out from that corner.

Four years later, I only have a few boxes left. I’ve sold more than 30,000 copies (hardcover and digital combined) of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur, and every month is better than the last. I’ve used the book to connect with an amazing community of like-minded entrepreneurs, leverage insanely awesome opportunities, and have become a growing influence in the entrepreneurial community.

Would I have pulled off this level of success if I hadn’t been driven by my failure? Maybe not. So the risk that seemed like sheer stupidity two weeks after my initial launch turned out to be just the kick in the ass I needed to catapult myself into the life I envisioned.


What’s Your Next Failure

You never know which crazy idea or strategy will be the one that works, so you just have to keep trying, and failing, and trying, and failing, and then fail some more. Until one day, you have your own bestselling book or venture, or your feature in Forbes, or until you take flight. With every failure, you are one closer to success.

Tell me about your worst failure in the comments, and how you moved on from it, or turned it into a positive.


Bonus: A Recreation Of Larry Walters Flights


51 thoughts on “How Failure Helps You Have Success”

  1. Spot on dude. I don’t even know where to start. This is tough for entrepreneurs because we always want to at least “look” like we are doing well, especially to all of those who tell us to “just give up because it is impossible.” We just have to put on blinders and run like hell towards the goal. Think of it as a race where in front is the goal and right behind is all of the reasons in the world to give up. It comes down to crazy, ridiculous, relentless focus. Sure, those moments will come along when reality smacks us in the face like a school yard bully, like you getting that $700 bill.  So we give ourselves a moment (a very brief one), deal with the issue at hand and continue the sprint. Then years later we look back and realize what looked like failure turned out to be a blessing in disguise. On top of that, we end up with a trove of fantastic war stories to write about. The most satisfying part is when some up and comer gets enough motivation from our stories to continue their own journey. This makes it all worth it.

    I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this here, but I cover the same topic on my blog:


    1. Derrick – Thanks for sharing that. It is such a funny and bizarre thing, the ego of an entrepreneur.  We all want to show success, and ironically try to show it the most when we struggle.  

      I myself have let my ego take over to the point of pure arrogance in my life, and I am embarrassed and ashamed of it. I want to think I am beyond it now, but only time will tell.  I think so. I hope so.

      Thanks for sharing that link!

      – Mike

  2. Love this: 
    Failure is not the opposite of success; failure is part of your success! 
    Also love your reference to the Spanx creator, such an inspirational story! Thanks for reminding me that the journey of an entrepreneur is supposed to be a bumpy one!

    1. You said it right Teach My  The journey is bumpy and windy as hell.  I am working on a new article where I am going to share some of my darkest and unproud entrepreneurial moments.  I think it is the most important part of the journey (the tough parts)…. it sucks when they happen, but they are the most important learning moments.

      – Mike

  3. Nice Post and your book “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur” is Awesome! The title alone is so ballsy lol! I saw it in Barnes and Noble and from the title alone….I had to pick it up

  4. Mike, I love this story.  I have been following you since your book came out, and have thoroughly enjoyed your real-world advice, success stories and failure tales.  Congratulations on your continued success as an author, along with everything else you do.

    Although I am a trained writer, I have been too chicken-sh*t to even try to become a published author.  Now I’ve started an e-book and have re-launched my company’s (failed) blog.  All the new posts are from other writers.  Hah! You inspire me, partially because you are a true-blue goofball.  
    All the best,
    Helicopter Marketing

    1. Hi Leigh – I so appreciate the kind words, that really means the world to me.

      I am not a trained writer either.  And I think there is beauty in that, since you and I don’t know the “rules”.  And by breaking the rules (accidently or intentionally) it makes you stand out.  So I hope you go for it with all you got.

      And be sure to let the REAL you shine.  Even if it doesn’t work (it will), you will be comfortable in your own skin.

      – Mike

  5. This an an easy one for me. Getting fired from a morning radio gig that I loved and was listened to by everybody in sleepy little Aspen, Colorado. In 1985 I was making 50 thousand a yr doing morning radio. Then the stat was sold and two things happened. One they decided they could get by without my big salary (I couldn’t. How could they.

    1. Frank!  That is a tough one.

      Money is replaceable but a job you love, not nearly as easy.  I can imagine how painful having both taken from you at once must have been.

      The transition after you got fired sounds hard as hell.  Scary.  I couldn’t imagine the fear of nearly being homeless is. The stress.

      Devastation to Elation!  Sounds like a great book title.

      Thanks for sharing the story.

      Got to ask… are you less fearful of failure nowadays?  

  6. I love this post, Mike… and hear you about boxes in the basement taking up / over the house and reminding you everyday where things stand. *gah!*  And that you cite Sara Blakely is rather apropos … I’ve followed her odyssey and give her a ton of props …I think I feel like she probably did at the start of her journey, too…showing everyone my leg and people thinking I’m crazy…
    BUT I am determined to see PortaPocket get embraced like Spanx has because it TOTALLY fills a need and solves problems…gives gals peace of mind and confidence, too, albeit in a slightly different way. And I know people love it…I just need the exposure.
    I don’t let it bother me that my family thinks I’m nuts and I’ll never “make it”…I refuse to quit no matter how many failures. I see the need and have the passion to never be defeated….
    THANK YOU for the sunshine! 

    1. Hi Kendra – Attached is a picture of the books.  This is NOT from my basement (it is now empty), but is additional books to keep up with orders.  But it gives you a sense. When I saw this stacked up in my home (in the basement) it would make me sick.  Now, the feeling is different… I see the stack of books and worry if they will be enough.  The emotion is still fear, but the “reasoning” is different.

      Stick with your dream.  The naysayers (often family) will always be there.  They do it, in part, because they are afraid. They are afraid to see someone (you) pursue your dreams and they may be left behind.

      The key to dispelling a naysayer, is when they say “your idea won’t work,” ask them “what have you done that worked.”  They almost never have done anything.  Then go seek out someone who has successfully done it, and you will see that they won’t tell you  that you are wrong.  They will tell you to go for it.

  7. Wow — thanks, Mike! This was a very timely message for me. I appreciate your being real, as always, and putting it out like this. Here’s my 2 cents: home run hitters strike out a lot!

        1. Yes!  And he was even kicked off the highschool team as a freshman (I believe) because he was not good enough.

          I met with Bo Eason this past week (a super star football player from the late eighties) and he was kick off his college team (he wasn’t good enough, and failed to pass the “test), 3 years later he was the number 1 pick for the NFL.

  8. The best part of TPE … it can replace Uncle John’s Bathroom reader, ha!  Thank you, Mike, for letting entrepreneurs be real, that’s so refreshing. 

  9. I am having a failure day as I write this,  It is so great to be reminded that it is not personal just part of the process.  Can’t wait to see what will come from this FAILURE!!!

    1. Congratulations!

      It kinda feel weird writing that. Even now my tendency is to say “I’m sorry to hear that” when you said you are having a failure. 

      But, I know you are another step closer to a success. 

      Learn from the failure, appreciate its value, and move forward!

  10. Nicely done Mike.  Great post and thanks for sharing the story of your book.  

    Geez, I thought you were always successful from day one…  🙂

    But that’s your point, right?  We mostly never get to see or hear about the heart-break years “before” an entrepreneur becomes an “overnight” success.

    So I applaud you for opening up and laying your wounds on the table.  Good stuff to help all entrepreneurs carry on in times of doubt…  🙂

    Warm Regards….  Eric

    1. Thanks Eric!  I know you are being facetious about me being “successful from day one”, but I think we believe some people are just blessed with pure success. I believed that at least. But as have grown I have yet to find someone with a story of pure success. Every one I have met and spoke to has had a rock bottom experience.  Maybe it is not financially, but maybe it is in a relationship or health or something.

      I think we all have been buried in failure at some point and we all will experience it again and again. If we can come to value it as part of the path of success… as my girl Martha says… that’s a good thing.

      Thanks for sharing that article.

      1. Actually, I was serious — you seem like a guy who has always been successful.  

        But to your point:  It’s just a myth.  Everyone pretty much has a rock bottom experience, even the guys and gals who are now at the top of their game.

        Thanks again for opening up Mike.  Love it…  🙂

  11. Mike-

    Thanks for the poignant reminder on the importance of failure. 

    Several years ago, I was let go from a financial services job…for doing everything right! (Despite growing my territory over 4X, with NO customer or ethical issues, the boss found me “difficult”.)

    I decided to open an independent financial office shortly thereafter, and within 90 days of opening found myself in the middle of a divorce – an experience I would never wish on even an enemy.

    Fast forward several years, I’m in a new city, with a new career (not finance), a new wife, and our first child is due next month….In short, I have never been happier!

    Sometimes it takes catastrophe (or a series of failures) to force someone to refocus, dig deep, and decide what is truly important to them.  It is amazing, today, how much opportunity I see around me.  Without those past setbacks, I might never see them today!

    1. Thanks for sharing that story Scott.  I think you hit it on the head with “catastrophes”.  At face value, none of those things you experienced (termination, divorce) where failures for you, they were events. But possibly you had failures that led up to those catastrophes”.

      The outcome is the same nonetheless, you had to travel a very difficult road to end up where you are today.  Those horrible challenges resulted in an amazing today.

      Thanks again for sharing… and I would love to hear if you feel there were specific failures that you experienced.

    1. Cindy,
      Thank you so much for the kind feedback.  I am so delighted that you are getting value out of it.  And I soooo hope that you love the new book. I have put everything I know into it, and want it to serve you like a trusted friends.

      Giant hugs back at you.  No groping, I promise.

      – Mike

  12. Let me just say failure is my middle name. It does not stop me. In
    fact, I started nursing school on crutches! My instructor thought I was
    joking. I wasn’t. I had just had the third of four surgeries on my hip
    (I hit a tree on a toboggan when I was 18, wore a plastic and metal leg
    brace from my toes to my waist for 7 months before I was told to take it
    off and it would be a miracle if I ever walked again). I am a walking
    miracle. With no limp. Just a bunch of scars to prove I survived. That
    is why I am a nurse today. 

    I currently work two full time jobs and one part
    time job ( have been for the past 11 -12 years) trying to keep our heads
    above water (my husband is a truck driver that has not worked much but
    the expenses are still there, and I went back to school for my BSN and

    I am trying to get my device to production and
    market, looking for angel investors, or VC, to help finance this as I
    have no money or resources. I recently had my 12th surgery in 4 years so
    money is non-existent in my life. 

    This sob story is just to say I understand your
    meaning about failure and success coming out from it. I like talking to
    people who have scraped up elbows and knees from struggling to the top
    then the ones who were chauffeured there. 

    I work until 3pm CST so will not be able to listen
    in to your speech. I wish I could as I love the way you tell stories.
    Best of luck to you.

    Please keep in touch,


    1. Thanks Ann!  That sounds like a tough road for sure.  I love that you gave such detail on what failure can feel like. No question it is scraps, bumps, bruises and disgusting-ness.

      Thanks for listening to my calls and speeches.  I love doing it!

  13. If we are honest, we all fail, and everyday.  The frustrating part of failure for me is the way people react to it.  When people, myself included, give up, argue, or worse…wish things were different, it makes me nauseous.  Someone once told me, “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  Love that quote.

    Here’s a litmus test on fear of failure Y (yes) or N (no):

    Do you have a LOT of difficulty making decisions? 
    Do you find yourself gossiping about  and judging others daily?

    1 Y:  You are probably afraid to take a chance.  Dip your foot in the water, you don’t even have to start at the deep end.

    2 Y’s:   You are failure phobic. You might be a bit paralyzed.  You really need to practice being objective, and just decide to decide.  Don’t painstake over any decisions today, just make them.  It seems like a win win situation according to Mike’s advice.  If you’re right, win.  If you fail, win.

    1. Kim – You are SPOT ON.  Everyday, everyone, fails.  I too give up too many times.  Or at least give up in the moment.  When I can see the opportunity in failure I start to push again.

      Love that quote you shared!

      Tell me this… do you have a method or way of approaching gossip. That is a challenge for many of us (and when I say “us”, I am saying ME).  I have improved a lot over the years, but still am far from where I want to be.  Tell me what you have done and have learned to stop gossip (even that internal head mind junk form of gossip) from ever happening.

  14. Mike, this msg certainly hits home with me.  I feel like I have made an entire career out of failure.  Funny thing is, I always rebound stronger and smarter; to the point that I have finally discovered the career I’m perfectly suited to—specializing in assisting divorcing couples sell their home!  You are a failure ONLY if you allow yourself to think that way.  I’ve certainly failed, but I am a long shot from being a failure.

  15. Where do I start?  Started a food business – failed!  Lost everything.  Was sleeping in the living room of my -in laws. Was the best, bar none, life learning experience I had.  Learned more about business, life, marriage, money, fun, health and happiness from this one event than my whole previous life experience. Wouldn’t change it. 

  16. I could not agree more Mike.  In fact, I wrote an article called Failing Your Way To Success, enjoy: 

  17. An important point about failure and the “Decision Cycle”. I taught my son at the age of 6 that making a mistake is a good thing so when you asking him now is a mistake a good or bad thing he says a good thing. If you ask him why? He answers because there is something to learn from the mistake. Understanding and integrating it into our day to day decisions is emotionally less stressful and more efficient. I guess this means my son David is now the youngest TPE er 🙂

    A quick reminder, you could see the “Decision Cycle” on or go the the interview you did on me

  18. Mike this was really the best article I read today. Many of us need to be reminded of how failure can truly help. Thanks so much for sharing it. I really enjoyed it.

  19. Thank you so much for the motivation  from your experiences. I also remembered when you mentioned that some people did not  believed in the title of your first book. I too have a title for my book and sometimes I second guess myself. If it wasnt for you I would have given up the title. TPE rule!!!!

    1. That is correct. Some people rejected the title and told me it was foolish.  They were (and are still) friends… and they meant it as a way to help.  They just couldn’t see the vision I had.   I don’t think it was a failure, it was just different opinion.

      The failure I had with TPE was the day it launched.  I sold nothing.  squat. zippo.  Technically it was the day after it launched.  The first day it did sell due to a big email blast and promotion.  But the day after. Day 2 (which was the actual official launch day), it was zero.  That was the failure.  A painful lesson.

      I think changed marketing strategies and slowly, over time it took flight.

  20. Hey Mike.

    Reminds me of the reporter who questioned Thomas Edison as to why he, Edison, struggled to find the right filament material for his light bulb considering all the failed attempts. Why didn’t you stop? he asked Mr. Edison. To which Edison replied, I didn’t think of those attempts as failures. They were just attempts that didn’t work.

    How friggin cool is that? I love that.

    From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.
    Watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
    You’ll see what I mean.

    Thanks for the inspiration.


    1. I love the Thomas Edison story.  Similar to Disney (yet Disney was more about fighting through rejection).  Edison saw the opportunity in failed designs.

      Have you ever been to the Edison factory in New Jersey?

  21. Mike, Here’s a quote from one of YOUR comments below.
    I hope I remember this one when I need it:

    “The key to dispelling a naysayer, is when they say ‘your idea won’t work,’ ask them, ‘what have you done that worked.’  They almost never have done anything.  Then go seek out someone who has successfully done it, and you will see that they won’t tell you  that you are wrong.  They will tell you to go for it.

    1. Thanks for highlighting that Brooke.  It works like a charm. In fact, when you ask a “way-sayer” (that is my term for a supportive person, you know, like “way to go”) they are the folks who typically have direct experience.  So when a naysayer says you can’t (ask them if they themselves have, which they didn’t) and then go to a waysayer (who has been there and done that) and you will find that they not only support you, but also can give you direction and mentoring!

  22. I started my first business at 24, creating media (video, etc.) that hearing and Deaf children could watch together (ASL plus really great songs/audio). My job was creative; my business partner was in charge of, well, the business. Within a year we amassed more than $100,000 in debt, had scads of broken bridges and broken relationships, and my business partner was gone. I did my best to give myself a crash course in business, but I really had no clue what I was doing. I fell into the common traps — hiring staff I didn’t really need, leasing an office I didn’t really need, racking up huge bills I knew I couldn’t pay, hoping for a big order — and ultimately closed the business two years after it began.

    I learned some hard lessons, but now, 13 years later, I’m just beginning to understand the biggest and most important lesson of all. I started the business because it was in my wheelhouse, it was a great idea, and there was a void in the marketplace. But it was not my calling. I remember writing a vision plan when we first started out, before we (stupidly) quit our jobs, and mine said, “Sell my share of the business within five years so I can do what I really want to do.”

    Today, even though I have a successful business, I’m aware that it could be better, more, stronger, if it was truly my calling. Again, the business is in my wheelhouse and fills a void in the marketplace, but it’s not what I was put here to do. So I’m getting real about what I really want, and how to make make that happen while keeping my business (i.e., handing the day-to-day over to qualified staff).

  23. I have always been an entrepreneur at heart.  My most spectacular failure though was my restaurant Porklet (any meal you want as long as it was pork)…. i think the facebook page is still up.  After about a year in the biz, three mini strokes and being one step away from a major stroke, I closed the doors.  It was without a doubt one of the most painful things I had ever done in my life but I had no choice.  The lessons learnt? …..several.But mostly about location, location and adequate funding.

  24. Pingback: I Am A Failure
  25. Ok here goes.
    At 18 I had my own corporation, selling costume jewelry to small stores up and down the Florida coast. I’d get in my car and drive, stopping along the way at each beauty salon or clothing store and showing them my jewelry out of a little display case.
    At 22 I was buying and selling real eastate. I got a loan from my Dad and bought 2 condos and was living off of the rent.
    At 23 I joined the NAVY reserves on a whim and loved it.
    At 25 I got accepted to Harvard Extension school and ended up meeting my husband in Boston.
    Moved to Egypt and was a Senoir auditor at Price Waterhouse.
    Got married, moved to Saudi Arabia and had 5 daughters in 7.5 years.
    I worked as an Operations Manager and opened up the first 4 costmetics stores in a new chain which have since swept through the middle-east. I had to quit due to a preganancy.
    And then IT happened…..
    I had this amazing idea for a children’s website. I did a crap load of research and managed to convice some family members to invest a pretty BIG sum of money. The website was finished and launched; however the visitors would hit the site a few times and never return. It was too hard to navigate. So I pulled it offline. Using my own money and selling my jewelry, antique silver and other dear possessions ( I didn’t have the “face” to ask for more money from the investors) I hired a new team to rebuild it. In the mean time, the stress ate me up and I was diagnosed with cancer.
    Now, the website is just about ready to launch again and I am paralyzed. I find a million reasons to put off working on it because I’m scared it isn’t going to be good enough again. Just writing this has given me a massive headache. I have anxiety attacks, etc. It was my first BIG failure and pulling myself up again is so difficult that I cannot even begin to describe it. My husband is wanting to quit his job once the site becomes successful so I feel like the future of my family and the people who invested is riding on my shoulders and it’s crushing. This possibility of this project failing never, ever crossed my mind. I just KNEW that it was going to take off. When it didn’t turn out the way I had expected, I went in to a tailspin. Giving up isn’t an option because so many people are depending on me. But I feel crippled. I don’t know if there’s a pill I can take or if I should plug a finger in to an outlet to shock myself in to action. I don’t know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More of mike…

Have Mike Speak at your event

Read All of Mike’s amazing Books

Listen to Mike’s Podcast Right now

Join Profit First Professionals

…& Mike’s Books

Profit First


The Pumpkin Plan

The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur