In business, we all love a success story. From Henry Ford to Jack Ma, Rockefeller to Masayoshi Son, we elevate the titans of industry to heroic stature. For a million (or a billion) reasons we entrust them with superhuman qualities; brains, fortitude, intelligence, even fortune telling and clairvoyance.
The truth is, almost all of these super successful people are really smart and have a ton of drive and other positive qualities. But they are far from infallible. Even Steve Jobs has backed his share of duds. Because we love our heroes we move on quickly and forget their mistakes, while celebrating their successes.
That’s okay, but it gives us a distorted picture of the world. Everybody makes mistakes, even the smartest among us. And we have to be willing to do that, to take risks, and to sometimes fail, in order to ultimately succeed. As a reminder of this simple truth, we complied a list of some of the most famous inventors and businessmen ever, to revisit their moments of failure, doubt, and ultimately success. Point being, failure didn’t stop them, they just got back up and went back to doing what they do best, creating, building, growing.
Success Stories, with a Little Failure Thrown In
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
Ken Olsen, Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, DEC, 1977
In the late 1980s, DEC was the second largest computer company in the world, largely because of Olsen’s work building networks and networked computers. Olsen was simply instrumental in championing and creating this technology. So how did the man who is arguably the ‘father’ of the ‘network’ make such a blunder at predicting the future?
Well the answer turns out to be pretty simple. While the hapless phrase is very well-known and oft-cited, Olsen claims that it is a remark taken out of context. At the time he had computers in his own home for doing “computer” stuff. He was speaking about having mainframes in the home to run appliances and all of the things we associate with the “smart” house. This was all the rage back in the 70s, but computer technology hadn’t yet found it’s way into every gadget. But Olsen had enough foresight to recognize that every home wouldn’t need a giant mainframe, because the networks he was building would make wiring the home more flexible and easier.
There will one day spring from the brain of science a machine or force so powerful in its potentialities so absolutely fearful, that even man, the fighter who will dare torture and death in order to inflict torture and death, will be appalled, and so abandon war forever.
Thomas Edison, American Inventor
Thomas Edison is one of the great inventors of all time, as to his quote, well we are still waiting for mankind to follow his advice. Edison is best known for the invention of the light bulb and the gramophone, but he also invented hundreds of other devices, including concrete pianos and concrete homes. His Edison Portland Cement Company built Yankee Stadium. Obviously, while Yankee Stadium was a success, the concrete piano and home were not.
He also invented a talking doll, which could really be considered one of the first android robots. It was very ahead of its time and a commercial flop. Batteries weren’t readily available, so the doll had to be powered by a hand crank in order to talk, and that had to be done at precisely the correct speed, or it sounded like gibberish. Of course, Edison was perhaps one of the greatest champions of failure, often pointing out that he made mistakes and had “failures” every day, which he regarded as an important part of the learning and invention process.
Question, “What would you do if you owned Apple?”
Answer, “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”
Michael Dell on Apple in 1997
Now that Apple has spent more than a decade in the spotlight as a tech darling, it is hard to remember that in the mid-90s many investment advisors were predicting Apple’s demise. The company hadn’t had a hit since the Mac, their penetration into the consumer computer market was less than 5%, and they had been trying to break that ceiling for years.
So Dell was voicing an opinion which many held at the time. However, shortly after, Steve Jobs returned and Apple began a new era of innovation and ownership of some very important sectors, like the iPod and the iPhone.
For what it is worth, Michael Dell claims that his remarks were misconstrued. As head of Dell, he had his hands full and didn’t know anything about Apple, so he would have sold it rather than running it poorly, at least that is his story years later.
A lot of companies have chosen to down-size, and maybe that was the right thing for them. We chose a different path. Our belief was that if we kept putting great products in front of customers, they would continue to open their wallets.
Steve Jobs, Apple
The man who gave us the iPod and the iPhone and the Mac, has long been regarded as one of the most creative, innovative, and successful thinkers to ever guide any company in the world. Jobs was practically in a class of his own.
However, even the thoughtful, lucky, and successful Jobs had his share of flops. He founded NeXT Computers, which was a one cubic box computer that had all sorts of innovations, yet it flopped so badly on the marketplace most people have never heard of it. Still, he pulled from the ashes the operating system for NeXT which became the backbone of Apple’s OS X. Jobs was also one of the early and most enthusiastic backers of the Segway, a much more public flop which is an almost textbook case of how highly secretive projects can go bad, due to the lack of diverse input.
I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.
Thomas Watson, President of IBM, 1943
How does anyone make such a stunning blunder of a remark? A lot of people point to that statement and the fact that IBM isn’t a leader in the consumer computing market and assume that he missed the boat. IBM could have ruled the desktop and laptop worlds, but for Watson’s narrow vision.
But, the year was 1943. IBM’s dominance of the computer market was still more than a decade away. There were almost no computers whatsoever. The German Enigma device that encrypted messages during WWII was a mechanical device. In a world like this, five computers probably seemed like quite a good number. IBM would focus on huge mainframes, like the IBM System 360 series, as well as develop the first laptop, the Thinkpad, which was a breakthrough in innovation at the time. The Thinkpad has been used in space, and the White House, and everywhere in between.
Of course, as computers became cheaper to produce and manufacture, and ever more applications were invented, Watson has been proven spectacularly in the wrong. Yet, IBM continues to be a major player in the high-end computer market, rather than compete in the extremely competitive price-sensitive consumer market.
“Television would not be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
Darryl F, Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, 1946
Whoops. This remark is even farther from the mark than Watson’s. Even with the rise of media access through phones, tablets and computers, the television is still king. Worldwide, practically every village and home with electrical access, no matter how poor, seems to be equipped with one of those “boxes.” The television is everywhere.
Zanuck for all of his creativity and as the leader of one of the largest movie studios in the world, failed to see the power of television. He could not appreciate that it was the stories that drew people to the theater, not the curtains and foyer. As a counterpoint, those who have predicted the demise of the movie theater since the 1940s have also been proven wrong. Theaters still continue to be popular, even with those who have televisions in every room of the house.
Innovation and Success Rely on Hard Work
Innovation and success don’t guarantee perfect vision or knowledge of the future. Those who succeed in life take risks, and that involves occasional failures. One cannot live on the edge without an occasional stumble. The key to ultimate success seems to be to keep trying, creating and innovating.
Perhaps Edison said it best,
Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.
To all of the creators, keep at it.