How Two Mistakes Resulted in a $150 Million Business

Mistakes aren’t the end of the world. Sometimes they’re the beginning.

never underestimate the postive potential of good mistakes


Paula Swain convinced her husband to leave a 15 year career to start a business from scratch on wrong information. He was on the verge of becoming the Athletic Director for George Washington University – his dream job. 

First mistake:

Bernie Swain read a Fortune article that quoted Harry Walker saying, “I don’t have any competition.”

Harry ran a speakers agency that represented many top speakers. Henry Kissinger asked Harry why he shouldn’t sign with a competitor of Walker’s. That’s when Harry said, “I don’t have any competition.”

In truth, scattered along the East Coast, were at least four large speaker agencies and several mom and pop shops.

Bernie and Paula mortgaged their home and founded the Washington Speakers Bureau with Harry Rhoads Jr. on misinformation.

They nearly called it quits. But after 10 months, they signed their first client. Total earnings year one: $700. 

Second mistake:

Steve Bell, then anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, was the first client of the Washington Speakers Bureau. The deal wasn’t actually signed. There was no contract. It was a handshake. 

Bernie didn’t feel comfortable going back to Steve with a contract. 

Steve Bell told his friends that the Washington Speakers Bureau didn’t make him sign a contract. They could walk away anytime. Soon top news celebrities signed up. All on handshakes.

They’ve been doing business on handshakes for 36 years.

Today the Washington Speakers Bureau represents Presidents, Prime Ministers, Olympic Athletes, Business Leaders, and more.

Turning points:

Life often tips on mistakes. Bernie’s new book, What Made Me Who I Am, captures turning points in the lives of 34 clients and his own. One of my favorites is Terry Bradshaw’s story.

Bonus interview clips:

From college to a storage closet:

Business on a handshake: 

How have mistakes been part of your journey?

How might leaders encourage team members who have made mistakes?

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