Learning how to fail

In business, we spend a lot of time talking about success and not enough time talking about failure. It’s a shame. The world of business is full of spectacular failures that we could learn a lot from.

I’ve often wondered whether we don’t talk about failure because it stigmatises the people associated with it. This is ridiculous. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history have experienced enormous failures: Steve Jobs, for one, was fired from his own company, and even after returning a decade later and turning Apple into the huge success it is today he still made enormous mistakes.

The Hockey Puck — success from failure

After being unceremoniously dismissed from his own company, Steve Jobs was invited back to Apple in the late 1990s to try and turn it around. Although he was responsible for many huge successes, his approval of Apple’s ‘hockey puck’ mouse, which was so round it was almost impossible to hold, was derided as an over-designed failure. It cost the company deeply and embarrassed Jobs as leader.

Returning to his old company and stumbling at the first hurdle must have been hard, but Jobs immediately learned from his mistake. Never again would he put his passion for design above the need for practicality. A few years later, Apple released the iPod, which perfectly married form and function, Jobs having clearly learned from his mistake.

New Coke — succeeding by knowing your brand

One of the more interesting business failures was Coca-Cola’s decision to completely change its signature recipe. In the 1980s, Coke had been steadily losing market share to diet soft drinks and competitors like Pepsi. The company conducted blind taste tests of Coke against other drinks and found that most consumers hated the taste of Coke.

Their solution was to make the drink sweeter — more like Pepsi. When the recipe was changed, in April 1985 the so-called ‘new taste of Coca-Cola’ was a complete failure. Consumers reacted hostilely to a company tampering with a brand they had come to enjoy.

The new recipe was discontinued and Coke’s market dominance gradually returned. Coke learned never to tamper with a well-loved and respected brand.

The Lesson

Stepping out into the world of business is hard. It’s estimated that only one out of every ten start-ups survives, and even then, very few go on to be the next Facebook. I’m never deterred by this. I know that for every start up that fails, several entrepreneurs from it will get up, dust themselves off, and apply what they’ve learned to their next idea. It’s this mindset that I try to apply in The Cobra Group of Companies, which includes a number of small start-ups as well as the global marketing Agency, Appco Group.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true, there’s so much to learn from failing. Everyone does it. The walls of Facebook’s offices are plastered with the motto ‘fail harder’ — I think that’s a motto to live by.


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