These days, Henry Ford is a household name, but it hasn’t always been that way. At 23, Ford was just a machinist’s apprentice with big aspirations.
A few years later, he was known as an intelligent, yet failed engineer who just couldn’t produce. His need to perfect every product he created led to late deliveries to customers that tarnished his early reputation.
But it was these early failures that taught him valuable lessons and sparked his future success.
His first lesson came when he designed his first automobile, the Quadricycle. There’s a good reason why you’ve probably never heard of the Quadricycle: it wasn’t fit for mass-production. But it did get young Henry Ford’s name out there, leading him to his first financial backers and his first company: The Detroit Automotive Company.
Detroit Automotive Company had a similar, short-lived history like the Quadricycle. Despite having William H. Murphy, one of the most prominent businessmen of the time as a financial backer, Ford still couldn’t get his product fine-tuned enough to sell. Perfectionism got the best of him and after a year and a half of tinkering, he still had nothing to show for his work. Murphy, along with all the stockholders, began to show concern. Soon, the board of directors dissolved and the company disbanded. It was a short-lived project and a failure in the eyes of the industry.
In the bureaucratic automotive industry of the early 1900’s, getting a second chance was a rarity. But after reflecting on his failure, Ford contacted Murphy yet again and offered new ideas and solutions to past problems. Murphy gave him a second chance with the condition that he work with a supervisor. For Ford, being supervised by someone who knew nothing about engineering and design was infuriating and unacceptable. He left his arrangement and decided to try other ways to achieve his dream.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” --- Henry Ford
With a tarnished reputation and no financial backers, Ford was in a bad spot. He knew he had to work around the system somehow. After months of looking for an unconventional backer who wouldn’t interfere with his design processes, he found the right man – Alexander Malcomson.
He now had the backing he needed to begin creating the automobile he had always envisioned – the Model A. To take care of the distribution and business matters that had plagued Ford in the past, he brought in James J. Couzens to be the Vice President of Ford Motor Company.
The first batch of the Model A’s was anything but flawless. In fact, they had so many problems that the Ford Motor Company had to send mechanics to every corner of the country to fix cars. But when the mechanics came back, they came back with feedback; feedback that Ford immediately implemented in his assembly line. With the help of Couzens, they kept shipping, kept making mistakes and kept learning.
It would take 5 more years and countless failures before the Ford Motor Company came out with the world’s best automobile – the Model T. The Model T revolutionized the automobile industry and brought Ford to the forefront of that industry. Not only that, he helped establish Detroit as one of the biggest, wealthiest cities in America.
What’s important to notice is Ford’s perseverance and ability to overcome setbacks. He used failure and the feedback gathered from those failures to fine-tune his design ideas and eventually change the way we get around town.
If you have a vision or if you are searching for your vision, keep at it.
Show some grit, work hard and soon, your efforts will pay off. They might even drive you into the history books like Henry Ford.
For more inspiring leaders, check out our Year On team.