It was the one question that I had not anticipated. The answer changed my outlook on how to do business.
In the early stages of my consulting practice, I was meeting the chairman of the board of a struggling medical products venture. Mentally rehearsing my successes and why they had uniquely prepared me for this task had been part of my extensive preparation. As any fledging entrepreneur will attest, there’s a lot riding on every opportunity.
Arriving for lunch at a posh private club in Atlanta, I was prepared to tell him all the reasons why he should hire me to help turn his company around. After we had dispensed with the perfunctory small talk, he leaned across the table and asked me the one question that I will never forget: “Tell me about your greatest failure and how it changed you.” While the question was unexpected, the answer immediately popped into my head.
Back in the eighties, three colleagues and I started a company producing hard disk drives in an effort to capitalize on the rapidly growing personal computer industry, still in its infancy. We had high aspirations. But we lacked the agility and working capital to succeed in a rapidly changing environment. In short order we tanked, never turning a profit. The company lost it all, the partners lost some money and momentum, but I learned more from that experience than perhaps anything else I have done.
It turns out that I’m not alone when it comes to watching a new business implode. Odeo, Traf-O-Data and Virgin Cola are not the names you’ll hear on the news or in a discussion at a cocktail party. Yet these companies share the same fate as my company. They’re a few of the countless examples of products that never made it, the results of early failed ventures of entrepreneurs who went on to enjoy great success.
Take Odeo for example. Evan Williams and Noah Glass left Google in 2004 in order to develop a podcasting platform that would change the world. In Williams’ words, Odeo would be “the best one-source solution for finding, subscribing to, and publishing audio content.” Sound familiar? It should, because that’s basically what iTunes does. Even though Odeo seemed like a great idea at the time, it never got off the ground once Apple announced the launch of iTunes. But Williams didn’t view Odeo as a failure. On the contrary, he learned from the Odeo experience and went on to launch Twitter, a highly successful media giant.
Paul Allen has affectionately referred to Traf-O-Data as his “favorite mistake”. That’s the product he and Bill Gates started in the early 70’s. The business, built on the concept of processing traffic flow data, incurred losses for six years before it folded. But the young entrepreneurs were undeterred. They learned from their mistakes and kept going and we all know “the rest of the story”.
And that brings us to Virgin Cola. Richard Branson has launched dozens of companies under the Virgin brand. Some have succeeded. Some have not. Virgin Cola was one that never made it. But Branson, who claims to have lost count of his business failures, is undaunted. In fact, he is a master at turning mistakes into new opportunities.
The list goes on and on.
Our culture likes winners, and the media reinforces everyday the myriad seductive stories of success. More often than not we reward success and punish failure. We view failure as a sign of weakness. But in reality, our failures, not our successes, are what teach us, what nurture our growth. Paradoxically, failure, it turns out, breeds future success, but only if we understand how to view it in the proper perspective and to learn from it.