-->

In Praise of Failure

July 1, 2009 

I was chatting recently with Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, about his company’s somewhat counterintuitive business. Its customers use Bazaarvoice to enable their customers to post product reviews and ratings right on their own websites.

I asked why would a company invite visitors to publicly criticize its products this way. He told the story of one importer who sells a large and eclectic collection of overseas goods. Customer ratings revealed that about one third of its inventory of more than 600 products would never sell well because of aesthetics, utility or other reasons. The company used this feedback to quickly overhaul its inventory. Had it waited for customer objections to show up in sales figures, the process would have taken months longer.

Fear Factor

If you have ever worked for a large company, you know that failure isn’t considered a good thing. Losing products or business initiatives are usually killed off only after long and expensive efforts to save them. Powerful people stick with pet projects even in the face of overwhelming customer indifference. People who fail are reprimanded. People who fail repeatedly get fired.

Social media offers unprecedented ways to avert this syndrome, or at least to cut it short. By listening to customers, we can identify and fix shortcomings much earlier in the product lifecycle. By engaging in continuous dialogue, we are more likely to hit the market head on with new products. If we don’t let failure become some kind of referendum on our self-worth, then we are much freer to experiment.

I look at Google as being the most visible practitioner of the philosophy. Spend a little time with the company’s line of applications and you’ll soon discover its amusing portfolio of error messages. “Whoa! Google Chrome just crashed!” says one. Another moans, “We know this is lame, but consider that Gmail didn’t even have folders in its first version.” Google is a company that doesn’t mind admitting its shortcomings because it knows customers would rather see that it is working to get things right than pretending that everything’s okay when it clearly isn’t.

Google_Lively

Google also isn’t afraid to cut its losses. The company has shut down more than a half-dozen products and services in the last year, including the virtual world called Google Lively, and closed a couple of high-profile business ventures. Google makes no attempt to hide these business decisions, but rather explains its reasoning on employee blogs. That’s because Google sees itself as an innovator, and innovative companies don’t mind getting things wrong now and then. In fact, a company that doesn’t make mistakes isn’t trying hard enough.

Shoot the Losers

Unfortunately, few corporate cultures are confident enough to work this way. One of the most common questions I am still asked by audiences is how to avoid negativity in social media. My honest answer is why would you want to avoid it? The faster you correct problems, the less damage is done. It might have been possible to ignore mistakes a few years ago, but that’s no longer an option. We can talk with our customers about our shortcomings or they will simply talk amongst themselves. Which would you rather do?

It’s often been said that the reason Silicon Valley became such a foundry of technology innovation is that the culture accepts and even celebrates failure as a consequence of risk-taking. In today’s media landscape, failure is no longer a private matter. Social media tools enable us to minimize the risks and consequences of our mistakes if we simply own up to them. It turns out that’s not nearly as difficult as we used to think it was.


Over There is Fascinated With What’s Up Here

My writings on the perilous state of the mainstream media have been capturing attention overseas recently. A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the English-language version of Al Jazeera television for an extended interview about the prospects for the newspaper industry. Then earlier this month, a crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. stopped by while filming a report for their markets (right). You can see both videos here. Our overseas friends seem mystified by the sudden implosion of media institutions in this country. I’d suggest it’s not surprising at all to regular readers of this newsletter!


Tip of the Week: New Life in Old PCs

Still spending money on new desktop computers? I’m not sure why, since most of us don’t even use a fraction of the processing capacity of the machines of four years ago. By upgrading memory, disk storage and graphics, most of us can wring additional years of life out of our old investments. I’m not sure there’s any life left in the old IBM 5150 from 1981 (left), but this Computerworld article tells how to pump up an old desktop PC with about $365 worth of components and make it fly like one you just took out of the box.


Just for Fun: The Age Project

How old do you think this lovely young lady is? If you guessed 23, you’re among good company. Visitors to The Age Project site can spend (read: waste) a good many minutes guessing the ages of people from all over the world who have submitted their pictures for the guessing game. When you guess a person’s age, the site then pops you to a page that displays the average guess of site visitors, your guess and the person’s real age. (The girl here is 17 years old, by the way.) The results page also tells you something this person has learned in his or her years on the planet — but not the person’s name or location. This young woman has learned “mankind is the only animal species that trip[s] twice with the same rock.” If you sign into the site, you, too, can send in your picture to be included in the random rotation, along with that one tidbit you’d like to share with the world.

Comments