Most of us don’t give ourselves permission to fail. We are so terrified of not being good at something that we never even try it. We convince ourselves that we won’t “make it.” And it’s true that the odds are often against us.
But in order to grow, we need to explore new areas. Inherent in this exploration is the potential of failure. Take the “fab four”—Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Four American companies that have come to define 21st century technology and entertainment.
It used to be simple to sum up each company. Apple did consumer electronics. Google was simply a search engine. Facebook was just a social network, Amazon a web store. (How quaint that seems today.) Now, each collides in various markets for mobile phones and tablets, mobile apps, social networking and then some. Each shows competitive brilliance, strategic genius and exceptional execution. They have each left their competition in the dust, and each has experienced total failure.
For many, there exists an almost religious faith that if Apple builds it, it will be successful. Though the company has come a long way since its debut in 1976, Apple suffered spectacular failures in the 1990s. The Newton message pad was unsuccessful in reinventing personal computing—it didn’t come close to sales expectations. The Pippin gaming system tanked due to lack of software, misbranding and an oversaturated market. Apple’s first mouse was a universally despised hockey puck design. It was awkward to control and completely un-ergonomic.
Google might have never gotten to where it is now without taking risks—several of which have failed miserably. Remember Google Answers? Google employed a team of researchers and asked users to bid for a response to their question. But users preferred their information free, even if free meant lower quality. And then there was Google Video. Google flopped on video sharing with an “if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em” attitude. They purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion.
Amazon’s is renowned for its e-commerce successes. Most of the products it has released are pure brilliance. But Amazon’s attempt to launch an auction marketplace to compete with eBay was a total failure. Amazon’s auction venture did not have much appeal as it offered little to distinguish itself from an already established incumbent. And even the great Amazon Web Services, a computing and data storage service to businesses, has had outages in which public clouds go temporarily dark.
With more than one billion users, Facebook is undeniably considered a major success story. But then there was Facebook Gifts, which allowed you to tell someone they were worth a dollar by sending them a virtual small icon of a gift. It was discontinued in 2010. In an attempt to integrate mail into its platform, Facebook launched Facebook Messages to allow users to send and receive messages with an @facebook.com email address. It was supposed to be a “Gmail killer.” There is no evidence of this happening any time soon. (Or ever.)
We should all be jealous of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon’s ability to disregard borders. These companies have no doubts about tearing down the walls of tech and expanding into retailing, advertising, publishing, movies, TV, communications, finance and other platforms. Their CEOs—Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos—have all committed to the “Why not have it all?” perspective. They have no fear of failure. The Fab Four could have easily been the Failed Four. Or just no four at all. But they each took on their competition, tried new things, learned from their mistakes, made themselves stronger and distinguished themselves from the rest of the pack.
Today, everyone owns an iPod. It is instinctive to start typing “google.com” into a search bar. No one takes smoke breaks anymore—they take Facebook breaks. People salivate at Amazon’s growth story. Everyone reading this article is a patron of Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google. So forget the odds. Forget what’s setting you up for potential failure, and go for it all. Take a risk. The odds are not in your favor, so statistically you’ll probably stumble along the way. But that doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in the end.
It may even help.
Niva Taylor is a Pratt junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.