What We Can Learn From The 4 Biggest Business Fails Of All Time

Failure is an integral part of business. It shapes what we value and provides us with some invaluable lessons. It is by no means a thing that should be taken to heart, even Walt Disney was fired for a lack of imagination!

Observation is a silent teacher and as marketers we can learn from the mistakes of the past. And there have been some big ones. From poor customer service to a lack of vision, in this post, I take a look at 4 businesses who got it majorly wrong.

1. The Facebook phone – so exclusive no one bought it

Currently resting in an unmarked skip somewhere is the disappointing merger of HTC, AT&T and Facebook. Facebook Phone was planned to run on a modified version of Android that Facebook tweaked heavily to integrate its services.

The idea with Facebook phone was to put people first (just not before Facebook). This was a phone that completely revolved around the app, which completely dominated the user experience, with consumers labelling it as ‘jarring’ and at best ‘an experiment’.

AT&T were given exclusive rights to sell the phone, but the exclusivity agreement didn’t reap any substantial rewards because to get the phone you first had to become an AT&T customer.

Considering users could simply download the Facebook app on their phone, without commitment to a network provider, there was no benefit left for the customer to invest, and the Facebook phone flopped.

What we can learn:

Even though both are giants in their respective fields, this is an example that by making your product too exclusive you risk isolating your audience, people want choice.

You need to build value and loyalty into your brand before you can justify targeting such a specific niche in the market. And if you’re going to ‘experiment’, always perform extensive testing before going to market.

2. Kodak – a hired genius squashed by a boardroom with no vision

Imagine a world with no Instagram, no smartphones, or no photoshop, where photography was a painstakingly slow process reserved for those who spent years studying its mechanics under scarlet lights.

In 1973, a 24-year-old Kodak engineer, Steve Sasson, invented the digital camera but the company rejected the invention, frightened by the idea of disrupting the industry and perhaps ruining the careers of photographers the world over.

“When you’re talking to a bunch of corporate guys about 18-20 years in the future, when none of those guys will even be in the company anymore, they don’t get too excited about your idea” Sasson said.

In the end, Kodak’s refusal to spearhead the digital revolution cost them the company, another reminder that your future rests in your ability to adapt and innovate!

Adapting your marketing to specific products is just as important – target the right audience at the right time for real value. Don’t for instance advertise IT software on a platform like Instagram or Snapchat and wonder why you haven’t generated any B2B leads for the month.

What we can learn:

Business is like a chess game – it’s important to stay one step ahead, anticipate your competitors next move or, ideally, his next five.

In this case we see the fear of causing disruption suffocating genuine interest in the company’s future. Consequently, potential world-changing innovations are ignored and supressed to sustain a ‘business as usual’ complacency.

The highlight – listen to your people! Products like Gmail and Google news are testament to this.

3. Polaroid – a darker side of innovation

Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in 2001. But, at one point, the company controlled 100% of the instant photography market. When Kodak tried to enter Polaroid’s market, they were successfully driven out through legal action.

At the same time Polaroid were secretly spearheading digital technologies – having developed one of the best digital cameras. But internal pressure made it impossible to commercialise it, realising that digital photography would ravage their profits.

In fact, a senior manager at Polaroid asked: “Why should we accept a 38% margin? I can get 70% in film.”

Sometimes innovations punish you instead of rewarding you. They leave you worse off no matter whether you pursue them or avoid them. Polaroid was among the many who fell victim to the dark side of innovation.


What we can learn:

The lesson here is learning how to sacrifice short-term profits for long-term growth. Planning a long-term strategy will help you reap rewards far into the future, which is crucial to keep your business alive. But it does sometimes involve cutting through the thickest part of the forest to see the sun.

4. Microsoft Spot – right product, wrong time.

Smartwatches are far from what we’d now call advanced technology, these days nearly every watch manufacturer has jumped on the digital bandwagon. But Microsoft were in fact the first to invent one – The SPOT – Smart Personal Object Technology, which had inbuilt email, FM radio and MSN Messenger.

The only problem was that it was launched into a climate that just wasn’t ready to support it as high speed mobile phone service was yet to develop and find its consumer demand. Eventually, upon accepting that the world needed to play catch-up – Microsoft pulled the plug on mission Spot.

What we can learn:

Time is of the essence! Launch a product when it’s good and ready rather than pushing to capitalize on any first-mover advantage. Establishing a product when you know there’s a high demand for it is obvious. However, as marketers, it’s just as important to consider the wider social, political, economic and technological environment that will support your product.

Conducting a simple micro SWOT and macro PESTEL analysis before you go to market could be the difference between your product thriving or floundering, regardless of how world-changing it might be.

Likewise, strike while the iron’s hot! Because you don’t want to be a “too late to the party” failure either – like HP’S touchpad. Launched in the midst of the 2010 iPad frenzy, HP just couldn’t compete with Apple’s vast Appstore, which put buyers off. So once again, find your USP and stick with it– rather than duplicating the hottest trend to adhere to competitive pressure.

Stay positive

On the brighter side, there are hundreds of companies who have thrived for decades due to their unwavering determination to embrace change. It’s hard to believe that just 7 years ago Netflix was a DVD-by-mail service, competing with Love Film and Amazon.

It wasn’t until they embraced streaming alongside the mail-order service, that their revenue went from a cool $300 million to a staggering $6.1 billion.

Likewise, National Geographic was in danger of becoming a magazine that only your grandparents remembered.

Founded 128 years ago, in 2012 the company integrated digital technology into their content – almost quadrupling their revenue. Currently boasting 87 million followers on Instagram and 41 million website views, National Geographic almost made the digital transition look simple.

Re-inventing, therefore doesn’t always mean forsaking your original products for the new.

Sometimes steadily exploring and carving new paths in the market can be the best way to retain loyal customers while attracting new audiences.

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