Back in 1970, long before Windows hit the scene, a little-known startup founder named Bill Gates started a business called Traf-O-Data together with his business partner Paul Allen. The business was formed to revolutionize the, well, the traffic counting industry. Yep, this wasn't Microsoft yet; it was the sexy world of traffic counting. And their idea was simple: cities and counties all over the world needed to conduct surveys about the traffic running on their highways. For years, those cities and counties had used the same, basic mechanical device to do the counting.
The problem with the device was that it required tedious man-hours to interpret the data. There was no computer processor involved. It was just a pneumonic tube that pushed air into a roadside counter as cars passed over the tube. The counter then triggered notations onto a long piece of paper (a traffic tape).
Then someone had to sit with that traffic tape for countless hours logging the notations for each car that passed over the tube...
Traf-O-Data promised to change all of that. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started the company by getting their high school classmates (yes, high school classmates!) to read and interpret data from traffic tapes, and import it into a program they built to print out the traffic charts.
This earned Gates and Allen a few bucks here and there until 1972 when they had an even more brilliant idea: they would use the newly released Intel 8008 Processor to build hardware that could automatically interpret the traffic tapes and allow the team to eliminate all that manual work.
Gates and Allen recruited a hardware wizard at University of Washington, Paul Gilbert, to create the prototype for a device that was going to revolutionize the traffic counting world. And for the next year, the three set about building hardware and software that they believed would change the world.
After a year of hard work, the big day came: the Goliath in charge of traffic counting for King County and the City of Seattle came to see Traf-O-Data's revolutionary traffic counter. Gates and Allen were ready. And everything looked beautiful. This would be the beginning of their time, their dynasty.
There was only one problem: the traffic counter didn't work. The biggest day of Gates' and Allen's business lives, and it didn't... bleeping... work!
That was a blow.
But the bigger blow would come soon after. Their entire state of Washington decided to offer traffic processing free to all of its cities. Just like that, Traf-O-Data had no market. It was immediately forced out of business. Gates and Allen had no choice but to lay off all their (high school) contractors.
A total failure...
Or was it?
Like so many business "failure" stories, this one is more a story about sewing seeds of success. See, Traf-O-Data forced Gates and Allen to learn programming skills that would be critical for building Microsoft a few years later. In a 1995 article with Fortune Magazine, Paul Allen acknowledged:
"Even though Traf-O-Data wasn't a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft's first product a couple of years later."
There are so many stories of successful business people who failed early in their careers for one, simple reason: success is borne out of failure. All the best businesspeople - Gates, Jobs, Musk, etc. - learned to use big failures to thrust themselves forward towards enormous successes!
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