In today’s digital marketplace, businesses face a tremendous amount of competition.

The emergence of e-commerce and mobile technologies have enabled customers to compare prices, get product reviews, and even make purchases from other companies from almost anywhere—even inside your store. So brands today are daunted with the challenge of standing out in the cutthroat digital landscape.

Fortunately for small businesses, however, social media has levelled the playing field of online marketing. Thanks to social networks, widespread exposure doesn’t depend on big spending. It depends on being social savvy and having great business sense and creativity. Similarly, success in the business world isn’t just limited to a privileged few. It is, however, limited to the relative few who have the motivation, resourcefulness, and persistence to turn their dreams into reality.

As these five powerhouse brands demonstrate, even the humblest beginnings can sow the seeds of the biggest empires.

Disney

After dropping out of high school, studying briefly at the Chicago Art Institute, reading books about animation, and working in a number of advertising positions; a young Walt Disney started Laugh-O-Grams animation studios, which produced shorts in Kansas City. But Walt’s poor management skills soon drove the endeavor out of business. Broke, but undaunted, he set out for Hollywood at the age of 21, where he and his brother raised $500 to start a new animation studio in their uncle’s garage.

Upon selling their first featurette, The Alice Comedies, they were able to expand into the rear of a real estate office. But Walt ran into serious trouble when Universal Studios, who produced his early hit ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,’ patented the character behind his back, poached all but one of his animators, and reduced his fees to the point where he was forced to quit.

Needing a new leading character, Walt created Mickey Mouse. In 1928, Mickey starred in the world’s first animated sound cartoon. Walt later went on to patent Technicolor technology, win 22 Academy Awards, and build the Disney Empire brand into what it is today.

(Source: Gambarrotti)

Apple

Recognising the untapped potential of personal computers, Steve Jobs founded the brand Apple with two friends in his parent’s garage. Their initial funding came from an Intel executive, who invested $250K to help launch the project. Early success with their VisiCalc spreadsheet software helped them expand rapidly. But as the company grew; Jobs clashed with colleagues, was criticized for hotheadedness and poor management skills, and was eventually forced out of the company.

But instead of becoming discouraged, Jobs founded a new company called NeXt. Their early computers, the NeXt cube, was a massive failure and almost bankrupt the fledgling business. So Jobs scrapped hardware development and instead focused on software.

After acquiring Pixar and finding success with the revolutionary digital animation used in The Toy Story, Jobs poured more investment into NeXt. They soon sold their groundbreaking new operating system to Apple, and Jobs ousted his replacement to regain the position as the company’s head.

While Jobs’ blunt and sometimes abusive management policies were often deplored, the results they inspired are unquestionably brilliant. Presented with an early model of the first iPod, for example, Jobs told engineers it was a failure and had to be smaller. In response to their indignation, he dropped it in the office fish tank. When air bubbles rose, he told them there was too much empty space, and demanded they start over.

The Virgin Empire

He failed out of school at 13, dropped out of high school at 16, struggled to read and understand math, and was twice arrested before he was twenty-five. But Richard Branson persevered, took risks, and is now the fourth richest citizen in the UK with his leading brand.

His first serious business attempt was a youth culture magazine called Student, which he launched in the crypt of a church. Ironically, Branson was arrested and fined for publishing an illicit article about venereal disease. He then went on to make modest profits selling mail-order records from the commune in London where he lived. Eventually, Branson opened a record store and built a recording studio, which became the seed of Virgin Records but the young company struggled. So to pay off an overdraft, 20-year-old Branson committed tax fraud and he was arrested and jailed, before his mum re-mortgaged the house to bail him out and settle the case.

After Virgin Records had cemented its success, in a bold move Branson decided to enter the airline business. He leased a plane and disastrously destroyed the uninsured engines when birds were caught in the intake during a government certification flight. So to pay for the replacement, Branson was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. Later, rising fuel prices, cut-throat competition from British Airways, and a global economic crisis compounded his woes and forced him to sell Virgin Records to keep the airline afloat.

(Source: Mark Harkin)

Yet despite his many setbacks, Branson continued to expand the Virgin Group over the years. It now includes more than 400 companies, and is one of the largest corporate entities in the world.

Milton Hershey

With only a 4th grade education, Milton Hershey began working as an apprentice candy maker at a young age. He studied the craft for about four years before deciding to launch his own business. At 18, he started a modest company in Philadelphia. After struggling for 6 years, the business was forced into bankruptcy. So Hershey moved to Colorado, where he began working for a caramel maker, to further develop his skills. Milton then moved to New York City to try his entrepreneurial luck again. But once more, he failed and was forced to return penniless to his family home.

Back in Lancaster, PA, Hershey decided to try again. He struggled with capital until he managed to secure a large order from a British company, which helped him acquire a bank loan sufficient to start large-scale production. Soon, the company grew to be one of the largest caramel sellers in the US. So Hershey took a big risk by selling the business and starting over. But his foresight paid off, and his decision to bring milk chocolate to the American public proved an enormous success. Today, chocolate and the Hershey name have become almost synonymous in the US.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford’s early endeavours in the automobile industry were fraught with failure. Originally founding the Detroit Automobile Company, Ford was unable to produce vehicles of sufficient quality to meet customer satisfaction, and his models were far too expensive. So after two short years, the business went under. Ford then rallied his resources, inspired a new team of investors, and launched the Ford & Malcomson company. But once again, his early vehicles sold poorly, and he drove the company to the brink of bankruptcy. In considerable debt, he finally managed to convince his suppliers to accept shares in the company and rallied together yet another team of investors to salvage his automobile manufacturing dreams once again.

Re-invented as the Henry Ford Company, the business finally managed to find modest success. But just as things seemed to be progressing, clashes with his colleagues forced him to resign. So in one last attempt, Ford launched Ford Motors. He grouped together projects and found enduring success with the Model T, and the rest, as they say, is history.

(Source: M Gleason)

Whether you are a student, emerging entrepreneur or a successful business you can learn a tremendous amount from the obstacles, projects and personal failures, and ultimate successes of brands like these. But undoubtedly the most important lessons to take away from these inspiring stories are:

  • Always persist through hard times and stay positive
  • Build your business plan and brand upon a strong idea and take risks
  • Fuel your brand with passion and dedication

These are all the ingredients necessary to surpass your own expectations and make a bold mark upon the business community.

Author: Jennifer is a graduate who has continued to develop her education throughout the years. Her most recent qualification and learning experiences were from her Telegraph courses in project management which gave her the ability to branch out her skills. During her career she has learnt from leading brands and inspirational people which has enabled her to develop strategies and lead the way forward in her jobs.