James Dyson made 5,127 prototypes of the first Dyson vacuum before he invented the right one. While he was beavering away over 5,126 failures, his mortgage was going unpaid. He had a wife and family and was losing money by the day.
When he finally invented that now famous first working model, he tried to sell it. And failed. And failed again. No store wanted to sell a vacuum that didn't have bags, because - guess what? - they liked selling bags to customers for years after they'd purchased a vac.
It was after exhausting every avenue of store buyers and nearly every bank for investment that Dyson finally hit his stroke of 'luck'. One bank CEO, having listened to Dyson's pitch earlier that day, climbed into bed with his wife and asked her what she thought of the idea of a bagless vacuum. She loved it. That CEO gave Dyson the break he needed based on her reaction, and now he is one of the world's most successful businessmen - without a mortgage in sight, no doubt.
You could look at that story and read it as a tale of luck. Whoever the CEO's wife was changed the course of history with a throwaway comment. Or you can look at it as a tale of hard work and perseverance.
Take Sara Blakely, the entrepreneur who started Spanx by cutting the feet off her tights in teary desperation one night as she got ready for a party. She kept the idea to herself for a year because she knew well meaning friends and family would shut her down. Turned away by a whole raft of venture capitalists (only 4% of VC investments are in female-led companies by the way - yeah I know), she demanded that one businesswoman she was pitching to came into the toilet cubicle with her to see her demo her Spanx prototype in person. She was sold.
But that wasn't her 'lucky break'. Despite managing to get her product into Neiman Marcus, a huge US-wide department store, it wasn't selling. Sara Blakely literally flew across the country visiting Neiman Marcus stores and shifting the Spanx hangers next to the cash registers. She would pretend to be a customer and pick a Spanx product up and loudly proclaim her interest in it to the overhearing staff and other customers. She even mailed cheques to friends across the country so they would buy her products!
That's how she became successful.
People often look at the Dysons & Blakelys of this world and sigh with envy or despair, believing that they just happened to alight on the pot of gold that magically appeared in their pathway. This couldn't be any further from the truth.
The reason I know so much about these two entrepreneurs is because I am obsessed with listening to a podcast called How I Built This funded by NPR and hosted by Guy Raz. He interviews successful businesspeople from Richard Branson through to Logik and everyone in between.
And EVERY story has something in common.
Hard, hard, repetitive work, always through a major downpoint where it looked like the company would fail and never succeed.
There is always a point where something goes badly wrong and a point where they wonder how they are going to keep it going.
But what they all have in common is that they don't throw in the towel because things just weren't going their way. They keep going, step by step, email by email, sale by sale - sometimes dollar by dollar.
I'm not saying that's all it takes. Hard work gets you nowhere if your product sucks or your idea is rubbish.
But just a great idea or a quality product won't get you somewhere on its own.
January is a slump month. It's a slog of putting one foot in front of another. We all feel that. As a business owner you may feel that more than others. People are skint, the weather's terrible and Christmas is over. You may be tempted to be more than a little self-pitying. Here's my advice: write that next email, bake that next cake, and stick the How I Built This Podcast on. You'll be inspired. Not by the genius or the talent, but by the indefatigable, stubborn, bloody-minded hard work.