The Man Who Never Gave Up: Seven Lessons from Colonel Sanders’s Entrepreneurial Career

“YOU’LL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING!”, said the mother to her eldest son. Her frustration was explicable. Widowed at twenty-nine, the young mother of three had to work hard to earn little; and with needy toddlers in tow, she had no option but to count on her eldest son, Harland. While she laboured for long hours in a tomato canning factory, six years old Harland was assigned to baby sit and cook meals for his younger siblings. 

As he turned ten, Harland’s mother sent him to work on their neighbor’s farm. The job paid two dollars a month plus meals. The farmer asked young Harland to clear bush from the field. But the boy got distracted by nature and spent time loafing, watching squirrels and birds. The farmer fired him from the job.

It was one of the numerous jobs he would lose or quit during his career. Nonetheless, Harland would never forget the look of despair it brought on his mother’s face, and her admonishing words, “You’ll never amount to anything.”

Harland David Sanders, who later became Colonel Sanders— and who still remains the icon of world’s second largest fast food chain— would recall during his later years how that singular moment of failure transformed him into a self-motivated, customer-oriented service provider.

Lesson One: Failures Are Meant to Transform Us

All of us make mistakes. Especially when we are young or new in a field. And so often our elders or superiors scold us for those mistakes. Some people misconstrue those scolds as the end of the world; they react by being rebellious to their parents or bosses and end up ruining—gulp, ending— their lives. Do not define such moments of failure as the epilogue of your life. Rather, identify them as fresh beginnings, just like Harland Sanders took his mother’s admonishment as a source of positive transformation.

When he was twelve years old, Harland’s mother married for a second time. As it happens in most cases, he and his stepfather didn’t get along well. Within a year, Sanders moved out. Having dropped out of school, he was on his own. He needed a job, but it seemed hard for him to stick to a single job.

During the next decade or so, Harland would switch several jobs. He worked as a farm worker, a fare collector, a paint worker, a blacksmith’s assistant, a coal loader, an insurance salesman; he had a brief stint with US Army on its expedition to Cuba as well. He even practiced law for a couple of years before being dismissed when he brawled with an opponent in the courtroom.

One day, while still looking for a job, Sanders got a ride with a general manager of Standard Oil Company of Kentucky who hired him as a service station operator. As an operator, while he filled cars with gasoline, he started cleaning and inflating tires for no charge. He began early in the morning and kept the station open till late night. With such excellent service, his service station became the best in the neighborhood, and he started selling more gas than any other station in the area.

Lesson Two: Stand Out by Offering a Bit Extra

Offer a bit extra if you wish to stand out in your profession. His mother’s scolding from his childhood had taught Harland to always deliver his best. However, at the fuel station, he went a step ahead and started offering extended services, and for longer hours. Those exceptional services made his station the best in the area. 

Like many others, Sanders could not survive the great depression— a period of worst economic downturn that affected almost every business.  In 1929, his gas station closed. However, his excellent repute in the area did not let him remain out of work for long. A year after, Shell Oil Company gave him a new station to run in Corbin, Kentucky.

Lesson Three: Maintain a Good Repute

Develop and maintain your reputation as a professional. Whether it is a new job or a business opportunity, a good repute will enhance the chances of your acceptance. On the contrary, a bad reputation can easily tarnish your achievements. Though Sanders had failed with most of his professional pursuits, his excellent repute with the service station opened a new opportunity for him.

Sanders ran the new gas station as good as the first one. In addition, he launched a side business: he started offering meals to travelers who stopped by. It wasn’t some fancy restaurant food but something more like you may cook at home. It was nothing new to Harland; he had been cooking it since he was a child. It came so naturally to him.

Selling hot meals started as a side business, yet over the years, Sanders saw more success in it. He opened a new restaurant with a seating capacity of 140 people. In 1937, he added a motel as well. No sooner, Sander’s restaurant became famous and a source of pride for the state of Kentucky. In 1936, Governor Ruby Laffoon named him to the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. From then on, he dressed like a gentleman and went by Colonel Sanders. 

Lesson Four: Don’t Forget Your Real Talent

Harland Sanders was running a successful gas station. But his real talent was somewhere else. He had been cooking since he was six years old. He started cooking and serving meals to the people who came to his station. Since he was good at cooking, it became his main line of business. No matter what you do for living, don’t forget your real talent or your niche. Turn it into a career if you can.

During 1930s, Colonel had perfected what came to be known as his “perfect eleven”. These were the eleven herbs that concocted together to make his perfect meat recipe. In addition, he converted a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer, thereby devising a method to prepare tender, juicy chicken in just a few minutes. His wonderful recipe with faster cooking times enabled Sanders to find Franchisees for his chicken; for every chicken they sold, restaurants paid Sanders five cents. That was a significant improvement for his business.

Lesson Five: Keep Looking for Improvements

Keep looking for challenges and improvement opportunities in your area of expertise. Seek better avenues for your business. Harland knew how to cook tasty meals, yet he kept striving for improving the recipe and reducing the cooking time. His conversion of a pressure cooker into a pressure fryer proved critical for expanding his business base.

In November 1939, a fire destroyed Sanders’s Café. However, this did not break his courage; he built a bigger and better restaurant and a new motel. Nonetheless, it was not the end of his hitches. In 1955, when Highway 25 was rerouted, the new road bypassed Corbin. Sanders’s business died off. He had to sell his property to pay taxes and remaining bills. Besides a modest saving, he received a mocking $105 monthly allowance from Social Security. He was back to square one.

Lesson Six: Everything is Vulnerable

Colonel Sanders was running a successful business. But a disaster came to destroy him. It can happen to anyone. No matter how successful you and your business are, you are vulnerable. Everything in life is vulnerable. The best you can do is to accept your vulnerability and prepare for the disaster as best as you can.

With no money to build another food business, Sanders made a brave choice. He decided to expand his chicken franchise operation. He allowed more restaurants to sell chicken using his original recipe. Along with his wife, a sixty five years old Colonel Sanders started preparing and delivering fried chicken to restaurants who chose to be his franchisees. While his wife stayed at home to fill the orders, Colonel often slept in the car to save money.

Their tireless efforts bore fruit and by July 1959, the couple had bought a property in Shelbyville, which became the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters. By 1960, more than 200 restaurants were selling Kentucky Fried Chicken in the United States and Canada. By 1964, the company had grown too big for Sanders, and he sold it for two million dollars— not a bad deal for a man who was broke just a decade ago.

Lesson Seven: It Is Never Too Late to Start All Over Again

Never think it is too late to start something afresh. It would be hard to think of anyone other than Colonel Sanders to personify the cliché “never give up!”. Colonel’s life was full of ups and downs, yet, after each fall, he exhibited a unique ability to rise again. That is precisely why, he is still an icon.

Until his death in 1980, Colonel Sanders kept visiting Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants all around the world. Despite having sold most of his business, he was still a public figure. Kentucky Fried Chicken, now called KFC, has more than 22,000 restaurants in around 150 countries. Colonel’s image still appears on KFC packaging, reminding us how a man can become an icon through hard work, honesty, and a sense of giving back.

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