This month, we have been taking a look at failure, why you should get comfortable with it, and why it takes courage to fail. So, in honour of failures everywhere, this month’s Courageous List goes out to my top ten most courageous fails.



Google Fails

1. BACKRUB – never heard of it? That’s because now it’s called Google. The idea was a brave one, as was the original name (BackRub… really… can you imagine saying, “lets “BackRub it!” instead of “let’s Google it!”?). But sometimes, the most courageous act is changing a potential failure at the right time. The idea may not have been a failure, but if they kept ‘BackRub’ as the search engine name things could be significantly different when you need to look something up on the internet today. Being the courageous failures that they were, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin decide to rename BackRub to something else in 1997, and so “Google” was born. The name Google is “a play on the word ‘googol,’ a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. The use of the term reflects their mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web,” says Google. In the end it worked out pretty well it seems, though we will always have these links for Brin and Page’s homepages as they appeared on Stanford’s servers back in ’97 as a means of remembering how close we came to a Google-less society. You can also check out the original, archived version of BackRub here.

Beatles Fails

2. THE BEATLES– Sometimes those who have the courage to fail are simply people who know how to handle the word “no”… again, and again… and again. The Beatles, for example, were turned down by almost every record label – that’s a LOT of very courageous fails. One time, an executive at Decca Records even declined to sign them because he said “guitar groups are on the way out” and even told the group that “The Beatles have no future in show business.” In the end, I suppose the real question is who really failed in this situation? The Beatles, many, many times before they finally got to their goal? Or that executive at Decca Records who was so, so very wrong?

Harry Potter Fails

3. HARRY POTTER – Another example of someone who failed many times before making it big is J.K. Rowling with her first Harry Potter novel. Rowling was rejected an outstanding 12 times for the novel and was even told “not to quit her day job.” Again, the end result certainly put those 12 failures into perspective, and good on ol’ J.K. for having the courage to keep going!

Babe Ruth Fails

4. BABE RUTH – Babe Ruth’s claim to fame, as you may be aware, is as one of the the greatest baseball players of all time, a recognition earned for several reasons not the least of which was the records he set for home runs hit. However, what you don’t hear as much about is that when Ruth retired in 1935, “he also held the record for the most strike outs in all of Major League Baseball”. In fact, Ruth struck out twice as often as he hit home runs. But his real courage came from the fact that he didn’t let those fails get him down – so neither did anyone else. As Babe put it himself, “I just go up there and I swing. I just keep on swinging and I keep on swinging. Every strike brings me closer to my next home run.” In other words, you could consider the fact that the most courage actions may be taken in a series of small steps, some forward and some back.

Apple Fails

5. STEVE JOBS – Like the guy or not, Steve Jobs was certainly no stranger to success. But he was also no stranger to failure. Despite the success of Apple today, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows for Mr. Jobs. In fact, Jobs had at least 6 big product flops including the Apple Lisa, NeXT, Apple III, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, the Power Mac G4 Cube and MobileMe, all of which either didn’t sell or had significant design flaws affecting performance. In the end, good ol’ Steve tried though and succeeded overall. But, with each courageous launch and each courageous failure Jobs learned from his mistakes and used those learnings to make his next products even better. So one might even wonder, would Apple (and Steve Jobs) have been as successful without those failures?

Bill Gates Fails

6. TRAF-O-DATA – Well we mentioned Steve Jobs, so it only seems fitting that we take some time to talk about Bill Gates and his failure record as well. Prior to starting Microsoft, Bill Gates and business partner Paul Allen started a business called Traf-O-Data. The idea was that the tech geniuses would take raw data from traffic counters and process them into reports that they could then sell back to the city for their traffic plans. It was a bold, clever idea – but luck was not on their side. The state seemed to have the same idea and they began giving away the reports to cities for free, rendering Gates’ business obsolete. But, instead of rolling over in the face of failure, the partners decided to change direction – an even more courageous move than the first business idea. The young, college dropouts created Microsoft. Again, the most courageous failures and those who aren’t afraid to keep failing courageously.

Einstein Fails

7. ALBERT EINSTEIN – Given all that we know about his genius today, Albert Einstein isn’t typically who comes to mind when we think “failure”. But, this mental powerhouse was no stranger to failure himself. In fact, as a child Einstein’s parents were convinced that he was mentally handicapped, that something was wrong with him and, famously, Einstein did very poorly in mathematics when in school – even failing his math classes. But, Einstein had enough courage to keep going, he kept trying and learning and thinking. No matter how often he failed, Einstein failed courageously – and today, it’s the rest of us that are trying to understand his math!

Edsel Fails

8. THE FORD EDSEL – Alright, we’ve spoken about some of the courageous failures that turned out well – but what about those that didn’t? Like the Ford Edsel. In 1957 the Ford Motor company was VERY excited about the Edsel. In fact, they were so confident about the Edsel they courageously boasted about the car like no other. In fact, the Ford Motor Company invested more than $400 million into the car, causing hype not seen to that point. But, that courageous leap took a turn and the hype itself is part of what killed the car. The public expected a wonder-car; what they got was a too big, fuel-hungry, expensive beast – right at the start of the late ‘50s recession. Today, even the word “Edsel” is synonymous with “marketing failure”. However, this courageous failure continues to be an incredible case study for marketing students, and a good lesson for all of us about hype and advertising.

Coke Fails

9. NEW COKE – Anyone remember New Coke? If not, you’re lucky! In the late 1980s Coke was actually starting to lose market share to Pepsi and they were getting nervous – to say the least. So, Coke took a not-so-courageous step and changed it’s formula to taste more like Pepsi… talk about sheep, right? Well, the public backlash to new Coke was enormous and talk about New Coke was everywhere. So what made this a courageous failure? Because of what Coke did next – they listened. Coke wasn’t afraid to abandon the project quickly and go back to their roots. Coke “Classic” made a comeback and holds the #1 spot in the category to date.

Target Canada Fails

10. TARGET CANADA – Last but not least, I wanted to take a moment to recognize one last courageous fail that made me quite sad to hear about actually. On January 15th, Target Canada announced that it was going to close its 133 stores in Canada and letting go over 17,000 employees as a result, just a few short years after launching in Canada. Why did it make me sad? Well there is the human element of course; it is heart wrenching to hear that 17,000 people will be losing their jobs, but also because I cringe to hear about any business failures. As an entrepreneur I know how hard it can be to make decisions for your business, not always knowing what to do or the right approach, and it often feels like a struggle to keep things moving smoothly and bringing in the dollars you are looking for. Target took a courageous step coming into Canada. They recognized an interest from Canadians, invested millions in the project and set an ambitious plan… even if, perhaps, it was an overly ambitious plan. In the end, they failed, losing $1 billion in their first year in Canada, and facing more multimillion-dollar losses after that – but it was amazing to see the number of goodbyes and somber posts about the failure on social media and in discussions with friends. There was heart for the business, and the move took courage – but it didn’t work out, likely for a whole number of reasons. In the end, however, it is an important reminder for us all that even giants fall. No matter how big you are, we all face failures, but the important part is to keep being courageous and trying.

With that courageous list complete, I leave you with one final idea from someone who said it better than myself – “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley.

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