Channeling Sam Walton’s Brand of Perseverance

As an entrepreneur today, you must filter through tons of info. Just Google “entrepreneur,” “start-up,” or “how to run a business” and you will quickly see that everyone and his grandmother seems to have a theory (and a blog) about how to get a successful business off the ground and running. How on earth do you know where to turn? How do you decide whose advice to take and whose to toss to the curb?

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to trade in the theories for a good dose of reality. When you examine them, you may be surprised to realize how often those realities–that is, the experiences of real entrepreneurs–defy conventional wisdom. Take one of the most successful entrepreneurs America has ever known: Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. From managing his first small variety store at age 26 to seeing his corporation become the largest in the U.S. (and himself America’s richest man), the merchant extraordinaire forever changed the retail industry by seeing and doing things differently at every turn. In the wake of his success, he left a handful of important lessons and colloquial wit that continue to be priceless to entrepreneurs everywhere. At the top of that list was Walton’s own personal brand of perseverance.

Sam Walton’s Big Failure

Despite a ridiculously long list of achievements and awards, Walton’s rise to success was not devoid of obstacles. In fact, the merchant had his share of outright failures. Perhaps his lowest moment came in 1950 when, after investing five years of great effort and brilliance, he lost his first store and was forced out of town by his own landlord.

Walton had purchased the store, a Ben Franklin franchise in Newport, Arkansas in 1946. By applying his own unique management techniques, Walton nearly tripled the store’s sales within a few short years. Walton’s magic drew attention. Amongst those who took notice was his landlord. Having set his sights on what Walton had built, the landlord refused to renew the store’s lease. No other suitable space for his store existed in Newport, so Sam Walton was forced to do the unthinkable: sell his precious store.

Walton was forced to do the unthinkable: sell his precious store.

Sam Walton wrote of the experience in his autobiography, Made in America:

…We hadn't made any mistakes we couldn't correct quickly, none so big that they threatened the business. Except, it turned out, for one little legal error we made right at the beginning. In all my excitement at becoming Sam Walton, merchant, I had neglected to include a clause in my lease which gave me an option to renew after the first five years.

And our success, it turned out, had attracted a lot of attention. My landlord, the department store owner, was so impressed with our Ben Franklin's success that he decided not to renew our lease—at any price—knowing full well that we had nowhere else in town to move the store. He did offer to buy the franchise, fixtures, and inventory at a fair price; he wanted to give the store to his son. I had no alternative but to give it up…It was the low point of my business life. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. It really was like a nightmare. I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community—done everything right—and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn't seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord.

Sweet Failure

There is no way around it: Walton’s Newport failure was abysmal. While conventional wisdom says failure is a bad thing, Sam Walton saw things differently. Walton recognized failure was unavoidable. In the business start-up game, obstacles–even outright failures–are a necessary evil, and Walton knew he could not be deterred by them. And like other successful entrepreneurs, Sam Walton possessed the perseverance to overcome serious setbacks:

But I didn't dwell on my disappointment. The challenge at hand was simple enough to figure out: I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

More than that, though, Sam Walton not only saw failure as an unavoidable evil, but he recognized it as a good thing. For Walton, obstacles presented opportunities. Failure had a sweet side. In his autobiography, he explained how the Newport debacle provided him the opportunity to gain valuable knowledge: “The whole thing was probably a blessing. I had a chance for a brand-new start, and this time I knew what I was doing.”

Learning from Walton

Walton’s story gives struggling entrepreneurs several morsels of thought to chew on:

  • For entrepreneurs, failure is a given.
  • Entrepreneurs must never allow setbacks to deter them.
  • Obstacles are opportunities.

As you face the blizzard of information available to entrepreneurs, keep Walton’s far-from-conventional view of failure in mind. And try to remember, conventional wisdom is anything but the entrepreneur’s friend.

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