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Fail to Succeed the Google Way

Just because you had a disaster, doesn't mean you'll ultimately fail. In fact, you can learn what you need for eventual success.

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Google will sell co-branded tablets through online stores in an attempt to compete with Apple's iPad, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Working with such partners as Samsung and AsusTek Computer, who will actually manufacture the products to start, eventually Google will reportedly make its own when it completes the acquisition of Motorola Mobility.

You could get caught up in the debates of whether this could be another failed Nexus One, the Android-based smartphone, built by HTC and sold by Google under its own name. Don't. There's a bigger and more important lesson for entrepreneurs: Success comes through failure.

Not a lot of companies hit it out of the park on a first try. Apple? Please. Its designers can go through many variations of a new product only to have to go back to the drawing board. For years, Steve Jobs called Apple TV a hobby. It was only right before his death that he thought they had cracked what would allow the product to become a success. And a big reason that Jobs got pushed out of the company in the 1980s was because the Mac was slow to become a hit.

Rovio? Angry Birds have become a massive brand franchise, but the company was close to bankruptcy in 2009, going from a high of 50 employees to 12, and had developed 51 games before, mostly for other companies. (The iPhone changed the company's possibilities because it could now sell through the App Store, rather than having to negotiate individually with every single mobile carrier.)

Google did have a flop with the Nexus One. The product never caught on, it was more expensive than consumers were used to paying, and the sales and customer service processes were poor. But remember that it didn't stop there. Instead, Google has been systematically trying to bolster its ability to field a winning product. The Nexus S, built by Samsung, was far more popular than the original model.

It's still early to tell how well Google might do. But the company is providing lessons in what to do after failure:

  • Take your lumps. Customers and the press lambasted Google over the Nexus One. The company could have tried arguing, not listening, or even dropping out of the direct sell market. Instead, it paid attention, even when the criticism was painful. Don't let your ego get in the way; learn so you can improve.
  • Understand what you're really trying to accomplish. There were two goals Google had with the Nexus. Create a high-end idea of what was possible with a smartphone running Android and changing the way people bought mobile phones in the U.S. Of the two, the former was more important because Google didn't want to cede the higher end market to Apple. The latter was more difficult, as it involved getting consumers and an entire industry to change their behavior. Guess which one Google kept? Concentrate on whatever is most important to your long-term strategy.
  • Buy some time. For its next model, the Nexus S, Google contracted Samsung to build and sell it. A complete retreat? Not exactly. Google still had its way with design and associated its name directly with a new brand. So long as operations are invisible to customers, you can do what you need behind the scenes while continuing to sell and build loyalty.
  • Get help where and how you need it. It was quickly and embarrassingly clear that Google hadn't the slightest idea of how to run customer service. So the company completely off-loaded that aspect of the business while it looked around to gain the expertise it needed by buying Motorola. How you get the help may change over time.

Be smart in how you fail and you, not your critics, will get the last laugh.

Last updated: Apr 2, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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