Innovative Thinking – Failure – Blog 010

Failure On An Epic Scale


Let’s kick off another first by talking about “failure” right out of the gate and get it out of the way.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to just tout my successes and the successes of all the other people’s examples.  Yes, Henry Ford utilized the assembly line and the first mass-produced automobile.  That’s what we remember him for and what his biographies are written about.  No one talks about his list of monumental failures or about how many times he was on the edge of bankruptcy.  We never hear about all that. 

We read that Thomas Edison was an amazing inventor with more patents that anyone in history with 1093 U.S. Patents, but we seldom read about all his failures, about the “10,000 ways NOT to make a lightbulb”.

As the author of this book on “innovation”, I have a responsibility to you, to present both sides of success and failure.  Please, don’t think for a moment that every one of my ”innovations” was successful.  It was the continuous ups and downs that earned me the right to write, teach and speak, about innovation.  It’s much more from my failures that have earned the badge of courage and by far the better lessons.

For every success, I have had three or more failures.  And, I didn’t just fail.  We are talking about failure of epic proportions.  Mushroom cloud failures.  However, this is where I learned my most valuable lessons.  It was these mistakes that I most likely will never make again.

Being successful doesn’t teach you anything.  When you succeed, you say to yourself “Of course that worked.  I knew it!”.  It’s when you fail you ask W.T.F.?  (Why The Face?)  How did that happen?  What could I have done to avoid that? Why didn’t I see that coming?  How can I do it better next time?  If I did it better now, would this idea be a success?  Should I keep trying to “give up the ghost?”

By the way, the last question is always the toughest to answer.  An entrepreneur knowing when to give up on their brain-child and walk away is nearly impossible to be impartial.  You have to listen to others and trust those closest to you.

Here’s a couple of examples of ideas that should have worked, but didn’t.

2001, Digit Rights Distribution

Here’s a great idea I had in 2001.  Remember, the Internet was only 6 years old in 2001.  We were about to hit head-on into the “Dot-Bomb” era where the entire Internet economy collapsed because banner ads and “impressions” didn’t translate the same way they were used in media.  We were told a banner ad impression was just as valuable as a TV viewer’s or a radio listener’s, or a newspaper reader’s impression was.  Today it’s true, none of them have next to no value at all.

This was the year I decided to speak and train full time.  I needed a website (which I already had since 1996, a one-sheet, which I could put up on my website, and a “sizzle-reel”, a demo video.  So like most other speakers, I had a demo tape filmed and multiple copies made to send out to prospective clients and speakers bureaus.

Since I had been making my own CDs since 1996.  It’s hard to imagine that a technology now obsolete was so new and cutting edge at one.  The blank CD’s cost me $2.50 each in 2001 dollars.  But I knew that “digital” was the wave of the future.  As a result, I made dozens of CD duplicates.  Later, I found out that no one had CD players for the P.C.’s yet.  That was also in the future.

Realizing if the video tapes were digitized, the videos could be distributed, downloaded, and even viewed online.  I know…  I know.  Considering that YouTube has 1,300,000,000 users, there are 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, almost 5 billion videos are watched on Youtube every single day, and YouTube gets over 30 million visitors per day it’s hard to believe everyone didn’t see that coming…  But they didn’t!

That’s when I created “Digital Media Distribution”.  Knowing if I could get 100’s of professional speakers to pay me a fee to transfer their 1/2” VHS video tapes to digital  I could make a killing!  I also developed the idea that…  Wait for it…  I could create a website that housed all those speaker’s videos for which I would charge a monthly fee, and prospects and bureaus could go to the site and watch the videos in the convenience of their own P.C.’s, I would make a double killing!

Well, it didn’t work.  After trying to get speakers to sign up for the translation service, they couldn’t understand the need for “digital”.  The “norm” was VHS Tapes.  Every office had a VHS tape player.  Absolutely no one was interested in the service.  OMG?!

The next most valuable feedback was “Speakers will put their videos on a website that offered other speakers!”  “There is no way I am going to send one of my prospects to a website where they could see other speakers (possibly a better speaker than me), and take a chance they would hire them instead of me!  No way!”

Crash and burn.

2006, V-Centives

In 2006, I had another idea where I could pay people in gift cards.  Think about it for a moment from all the angles.

The first fact you must become aware of is Cost of Customer Acquisition.  That is the actual cost a company spends to acquire just one customer, either a new customer or to replace an existing customer.

While these numbers are VERY difficult to find, here are some numbers on Industry Cost of Customer Acquisition.  They are  amazing:If a retailer has to spend say, $14 in advertising to acquire only one customer, then give me a fist full of $10 gift cards and I will give them to people who want to buy your products.  They will buy your products, they will experience your great customer experience, they will begin their buying relationship with a gift card (which is fun), and you will save $4 from your usual cost.  AND…  if you read my blog “Are Gift Cards A Scam”, the facts show that 40% of all gift cards given are lost or never redeemed.  That is a ton of revenue for all retailers!

If 100’s of companies gave me thousands of gift cards, my part to satisfy the retailer would be to distribute them and I could either use them as currency or sell them for pennies on the dollar (anyone ever heard of Groupon?).

Nope…  A total crash and burn.

To this day I am dumbfounded that this didn’t take off.  It’s funny how some things at a given point in time doesn’t look like a good idea, but several years later, it’s commonplace.  Amazon is a perfect example.

When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon on July 5, 1994, NO ONE would buy anything online.  Not then and not for more than a decade later.  Jeff burned through millions of venture capital dollars.  He tried to convince the world that buying stuff online then having it brought to your home was a good idea.  The common mindset of people wasn’t to buy anything unless they could see it, touch it, and feel it.  Well that all changed.

The problem was, Jeff had to wait (and fund) more than 10 years worth of societal change before the thinking for the world around him could catch up to his innovation.

The moral of the story is…  Hang in there!  If it was easy, everybody would do it!  You can too!

Lon Safko
Serial Innovator, Keynote Speaker, Trainer, Innovative Thinking


Tags: innovative thinking, creative, creative thinking, Innovation, critical thinking definition, innovation definition, critical thinking skills, creative process

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