From Edison to Gates, failure fuels great minds

Friday, November 14, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 46

In sales, as in life, many a person throws in the towel after failure, not realizing failure is actually an inevitable outcome of the innovative.

Thomas Edison is reported to have had more than 1,000 failures before finally inventing a practical electric light bulb.

Aptly, he said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Those afraid to fail often avoid innovation and the risks associated with it. They never realize their true potential, as only through failure can we improve.

Personally, some of my worst sales calls were the precursor to the most fundamental and creative shifts in my sales strategy that allow for the success I realize today.

Six Sigma is built on the principle of continuous improvement, which cannot co-exist with a fear of failure. The idea is to test your new ideas on a small scale where possible to limit your financial risk.

Then realize any failure quickly, assess the cause, quickly adapt, and create again.

Here’s how this translates to the sales profession.

Look at failure as a great teacher

Bill Gates said: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Successful people don’t particularly like failure, but they handle it differently than their less successful counterparts. The failure doesn’t shatter them; they use it as fuel to uncover what didn’t work and how to fix it. It lights their proverbial fire.

Dive in headfirst

If you have cold call reluctance, make it the first thing you tackle at the top of every day and find an accountability partner to ensure you stay the course.

Consider setting this seemingly ridiculous objective: Ensure that you fail as miserably as you can at your first three calls every day until the reluctance is gone.

Not only will it demonstrate your ability to survive failure, but you’ll also learn something along the way.

Never mistake rejection for failure

Successful salespeople welcome a quick “no,” if that “no” is because of a prospect’s genuine lack of need for what they are selling.

It gives that sales rep the ever-valuable gift of time to move on and focus on qualified prospects.

If you are unsure if you have the risk tolerance to embrace the failure that accompanies innovation, consider the tragic tale of Eastman Kodak.

Once a dominant market leader, this company opted to play it safe and focus on its core film business, failing to evolve and capitalize on digital camera technology.

In 2012, the company filed for bankruptcy. In product development as in sales, sitting still equates to falling behind.

Lori Turner-Wilson is an award-winning columnist and managing partner of RedRover Sales & Marketing,, with offices in Memphis and Nashville. You can follow RedRover on Twitter (@redrovercompany and @loriturner) and Facebook (