Next time you fail, don't pivot. Don't scramble to draft your takeaways and call them "opportunities." Don't rush to tweak your product according to market research. Just fail. Dr. Samuel West, a Swedish psychologist with a Ph.D. in organizational psychology who's studied mindsets and cultures that produce innovation, wants you to revel in your big bomb. It will, he says, free you to be more creative than ever.
"It hurts, but you deal with it. Don't let it stop you, but deal with it," West advises on experiencing failure. He cites the title of the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyways as a good mantra. (He's failed to get around to reading it, he will tell you with a laugh, but he likes the title.)
West sees American business culture -- and even business publications like this one -- as part of the problem. Too often, mainstream media presents "this shiny, happy image of success," West told me, as I visited the Los Angeles show of his pop-up, Museum of Failure. In contrast, he very much believes in learning from mistakes.
In his view, there's really no such thing as one shot at success or happiness. Do your work, but don't be so terrified about nailing it all down. Don't have a fear of missing out, or somehow not catching everything. That latter one he mocked me for -- leaning into my phone's voice recorder as we began our conversation, saying, "Hellooo, I've already said everything important!"
West's spectacle of non-starters, on view in Los Angeles until Feb. 4, will be back in his native country of Sweden in April. Other cities may be announced on the tour. The pop-up contains better-known product disasters in recent history, like Juicero, Colgate's beef lasagna, the Amazon Fire phone, Ford's Edsel (full size model on display), and New Coke.
There are also shelves and cases of lesser-known miscalculations, errors in design, rushed development, and narrow misses, listed below. The lesson for bootstrapping founders? Just keep going.
1. Febreze Scentstories
Design something unique, but take a lesson from Febreze and make sure that the design does not obfuscate the function. The idea behind Scentstories was aromatherapy on 30-minute rotation, with CD-like cartridges displaying very wordy scent descriptions like "Wandering Barefoot on the Shore" and "Following the Winding Creek" that could almost be country song titles. Further confusing the scentmaker-or-CD-player? question was an actual country music singer, Shania Twain, as a spokesperson.
2. Apple Newton
If you're designing mobile technology, you need long battery life. And sometimes, your grand idea is just a first draft for something grander.
Before our present-day world of touchscreens with recognition features as a given, and smartphones with Alexa and Siri to act as assistants, there was a 90s-era handheld device. The self-appointed
"personal digital assistant" was a first. Remember, this is even before every techie you knew had a position in the PalmPilot versus Blackberry debate. But the touted MessagePad's handwriting recognition software was iffy and the battery life was lacking. It lasted from 1993 to 1998 before Apple pulled it from the market. But not all was lost: The seeming failure actually laid the groundwork for the iPod.
Some things are simply out of your control--like developments in epidemiology that name an emerging global illness. It's especially unfortunate for you if that frightening new virus is called AIDS, a homophone to your diet pill disguised as candy, that you hoped would be a blockbuster with sugar fiends everywhere. Instead, Ayds was unfortunately timed, and would not survive the 1980s.
4. Dupont Corfam shoes
Style matters, even if you enter the apparel world with a famously functional brand. And, people don't wear uncomfortable shoes for very long, would be the second takeaway from mammoth materials manufacturer DuPont's flop. The company has proven it can produce incredible innovation and durability for other purposes, and today, a simple, animal-free patent black pump might gain a footing, but consumers just didn't buy the shoe 50 years ago. In 1971, after seven years of attempting to spin out a new product line, DuPont stepped off.
Oreos, in all their delightful iterations, are of course not a failure. Not on the whole. But consumers over the years weren't keen to take a bite of some of the more out-there flavor experiments. The takeaway here? If you expand your product line enough to diversify with reliable winners, you can occasionally handle some losers, like Dunkin' Donuts Mocha, Hot Cocoa, Apple Pie, Candy Cane, and Blueberry Pie. The Oreo wall at the Museum of Failure displays the many kinds of Oreos, with the yellow packages placed to form a big F for failure.
6. ET video game
You have to give your team sufficient time to develop something big. The incentive of, say, a massive marketing partnership with a Steven Spielberg film doesn't magically speed up the process. That's the lesson Atari had to learn when it rushed to develop its ET video game, cramming to production in time for Christmas shopping. Hasty development led the company to post an other worldly $536 million loss in 1983.
Adapt, adapt, adapt. One more time for the people in the back: Adapt! Facit dominated the mechanical calculator market, having started in the 1930s and eventually growing to 8000 subsidiaries in over 100 countries. But the Swedish firm didn't take electronic calculators seriously as a threat when they emerged in the 1960s. By the 1970s, pocket calculators were proliferating, with Sanyo, Canon, and Sharp all producing the handy, highly portable gadgets. Japan mass producing calculators and flooding the market pushed Facit out of business by 1972.
Occasionally you'll have a narrow miss and not much can be done. At least not by you. In the case of the Monoski, it was a physical pivot that was needed. But that pivot was executed by a competitor, with a turned consumer in mind. The Monoski's designer needed to imagine a snow skier riding one board, but instead of both feet strapped to one ski with the skier's body facing down the mountain, consumer demand appeared for something like a narrow surfboard on snow, with a skier's feet strapped to one board, body facing sideways. Not long after the Monoski went downhill, snowboards took off.
Women will, unfortunately, suffer for beauty, but we generally don't care to look like movie murderers or crash test dummies. Like Febreze Scentstories, the makers of Rejuvenique might have benefited from a design that hews closer to function. That is, they could have made a beauty product a little more beautiful. The electrodes on the inside of the mask that one zaps one's own skin with say medieval torture device than ageless glam.
Like Oreos, Kellogg's shows that you if you are successful enough, you can eat some customer rejection. The cereal giant turned out orange flavored Os, something like Cheerios infused with orange juice. You can kind of see the logic of a fruity, crunchy wheat-based O-shaped cereal. Something similar worked with Apple Jacks, and it's pretty close to Froot Loops. Is a parrot more interesting to kids than a cowboy named O.J. Joe? Did parents recognize that a cereal touted as 10 percent real orange juice was still basically a different form of morning sugar shock? Whatever the reason the idea ultimately didn't connect, the product was pulled in 1986 after just one year.
11. Nintendo Virtual Boy
Put yourself in your buyer's shoes. As in, think about standing where they'd be when using your product. That's what Nintendo didn't do, even though the company was in a sense ahead of its time with mid-90s virtual reality gaming. The visuals were meh, which would disappoint even if the hardware didn't lack the headset to allow the player to stand in a virtual world and look around, immersed.
12. Various Trump ventures
The strength of a name can't translate into success in every product category. That's the lesson for some of President Trump's past ventures, putting him in a group with Colgate's lasagna and DuPont's shoes. People will enthusiastically buy some of his ideas, just not all.
Like Oreo and Kellogg's, he has enough going on to absorb some misses, and has amassed enough no-gos to earn his own small section in the Museum of Failure. Trump's branded bottled water, called Ice, sold at his resorts but didn't interest consumers when released to a wider market in 2004. His Monopoly-esque real estate board game didn't hit during its first market run from 1989 to 1990. When the success of The Apprentice presented a potential second opportunity to play dealmaker in 2004, people still weren't buying. And a small airline for east coast commuters okay with base case features was acquired, and the planes revamped with gilted, Trumpian interiors. But the Trump Shuttle's prices changed with the renovation, and by 1992 it was clear people weren't going to pay for a glitzy commute.