Failure is par for the course in the world of business. Some businesses fail altogether, but even those that avoid this ultimate pitfall will undoubtedly see mistakes ranging from the mildly inconvenient to those that impact growth and profitability for a long period of time.

However, because every business and every business person make mistakes, there are a wealth of opportunities to learn from the failure of others and avoid those problems. Here we’ve looked at two of the world’s most successful business people, Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and Bill Gates one of the co-founders of Microsoft.

To get an idea of just how successful these two business men are, take a look at this tool that allows you to compare your salary with that of the two businessmen, as well as Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg.

Richard Branson

Branson has always acknowledged that there’s a very thin line between success and failure for businesses and sometimes even the best entrepreneurs slip the wrong side of it (Virgin Cola anybody?) and ultimately experience business failure. But this, says Branson, the best way to learn and that business people need to pick themselves up and carry on.

It’s also vitally important to be honest about your mistakes says Branson. Don’t let your mistakes consume you, figure out how to fix it then move on.

Finally, Branson has a great quote about the nature of risk in business, He says “The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all”. What he’s saying here is that if you take a risk you may fail but if you never take a risk then you are guaranteed to fail.

Bill Gates

Neither Windows 1 nor Windows 2 were very successful. Windows 2 found limited success, largely thanks to additional software like Excel and Word. Windows 3 however was a different story, selling over 10 million units in just two years.

What Gates and his team had learnt from the early underwhelming performance of Windows 1 and 2 is that the early concepts were good but that they needed more development to become great.

Gates makes a big deal of learning from failure. He says “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” The point he’s making is that in an ever changing world, assuming that what worked last time will work in the future can blind us, whereas understanding why we failed at something means we can avoid that in the future and probably means we’re less likely to get lazy and complacent.

Gates has another pithy quote that can also teach us about the role of failure in making us better. He says “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”.  Microsoft have made pretty much everyone who’s used one of their products unhappy at one time or another. Whether it’s a PC that crashes taking your homework with it, a spreadsheet that won’t behave or the dreaded blue screen of death, because so many people use Microsoft products, everyone can relate to these problems.

Its not as if people don’t let Microsoft know when they have one of these problems and this gives the company an opportunity to see which of its products and services are causing the most issues and what those issues most commonly are.

In Conclusion

So, there you have it, even the best fail. But the crucial thing for business leaders to take away from this isn’t that failure is terrible because it’s inevitable but that its failing to learn from failure that truly signals catastrophe for businesses.