Business Musings: Expect Failure

Business Musings: Expect Failure

Not too long ago, I made a suggestion to someone I’m working with. I thought we should send our project to a Big Name Magazine, for consideration in one of the many things they’re doing. (Yes, I’m being deliberately vague.)

The response I got from my partner on this project was purposely discouraging, questioning my desire to even try because Big Name Magazine gets thousands of submissions. I pushed—hard—and the project got submitted.

I’m not sure I got angry about that response, but I did get peeved. I personally hate it when someone refuses to try because thousands of other people are trying too. Guaranteed failure, that’s what that attitude is, and not the good kind of failure.

It’s the kind of failure that shows a lack of belief, either in the self or the project.

A lot of people refuse to try anything because they’re afraid of failing. And I find that ironic: because failing to try is failing.

Arg. Anyway.

I’m doing a blog series subtitled “Rethinking The Writing Business,” and the series is mostly about licensing. I wrote a post titled “Expect Success” earlier in the series, but didn’t number it (chronologically, it would be #8) so that people who aren’t reading the series would read it. I’m doing the same with this post, which is (counting the success post) #14.

“Expect Success” is all about attitude, about approaching everything—including submitting a project along with thousands of other people—with the idea that your project could succeed. Be optimistic and try.

The other point of expecting success is to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and keep pushing until you do succeed.

But if you do that, then the subtext is this: you will fail.

A lot.

And for some reason, most people see failure of any type as a failing.

So imagine my delight when I was reading an article in, of all things, a magazine that I get for free because I went to the Consumer Electronics Show. In the May/June issue of I3, entrepreneur Jake Sigal explores something they do at his company, Tome.

Tome both shares and celebrates failure. Sigal writes:

We have a fail brick with our logo that is earned. Whenever anyone fails, we post a message on Slack and show off  the brick on our desks as a badge of honor.

Why? Because Sigal’s company “encourage team members to push personal technical limits, without fear of the consequences of failure….Failure is not only tolerated, it’s expected. We use it to decommission certain techs while others are prioritized.”

Sigal’s short little article is a master class in using failure to build a foundation that will allow a business to grow. I suggest you take a look at it.

His article also led me to something fun. He mentioned that Ben & Jerry’s—you know, the ice cream people—have a flavor graveyard for flavors that weren’t as successful as the company wanted. Some are outright failures.

I Googled Ben & Jerry’s “flavor graveyard” and discovered something not just fun, but something that also pertains to licensing.

You see, rather than hiding their failures, Ben & Jerry’s celebrates them. At first, they set up an online flavor graveyard with fake gravestones, explaining that certain flavors were no longer being made.

I suspect they did this in their humorous way because they were getting requests for flavors they were no longer producing. It was an on-brand way to show customers that these products couldn’t be ordered any longer.

Let’s stop right here and think about this for a moment.

Ben & Jerry’s has, as of 2018, discontinued 300 flavors. (Or rather, those flavors have de-pinted.) That’s 300 flavors that were tested in their facilities, marketed, and sold at various retail outlets. Some of those 300 flavors are favorites of some customers.

I’m sure someone in Ben & Jerry’s looked at the cost of constantly producing a flavor, and when the sales did not measure up to whatever it cost to produce the flavor, the flavor vanished from the shelves.

But not from customer memory. And for that, Ben & Jerry’s set up the flavor graveyard.

Only…it goes beyond that. Because Ben & Jerry’s put 40 of its flavors in an actual physical flavor graveyard with actual tombstones behind its Waterbury, Vermont plant. And according to the company, the graveyard is one of Vermont’s biggest tourist attractions.

And the company had fun with the idea. On their website, they have the Five Stages of Flavor Grief, again probably a way to deal with customers who hate that their favorite flavor got discontinued. But still…fun. The company is taking something other companies like to bury (pun intended) and are turning that failure into a multilevel success.

More than that, Ben & Jerry’s will resurrect flavors should those flavors get enough votes on the website. The resurrection is usually for some special event or a limited edition version of the ice cream, but it takes all that work that went into the flavor and reuses it in a creative and fun way.

When you click to resurrect a flavor, you have to fill out a form and explain why you liked that flavor. And then, if you want, you can join the newsletter.

Like Sigal, Ben & Jerry’s is celebrating its failures. From a press release the company produced around Halloween last year:

Ben & Jerry’s has created countless euphoric flavors since 1978, and a few have to go each year to make room for new delights. Sometimes flavors meet an untimely demise because they were a big mistake. Peanuts! Popcorn! sounded like a great day at the ballfield, but the popcorn ultimately became a soggy mess. Off to the graveyard it went.

“Ben & Jerry’s is known for outrageous, chunky, funky flavors,” said Flavor Guru Eric Fredette. “But experimentation comes with risk, and not everybody likes our edgier ideas. Like everything else, ice cream flavors have a beginning and an end.”

Let me highlight something in case you missed it: Experimentation comes with risk. Risk of what? Failure. Risk of failure.

Yeah, yeah, you’re saying. You know that. You’ve heard all about how you need to fail to succeed.

But most people do their very best to avoid failure. And what I’m trying to show you with that example is the idea of avoiding failure is a terrible one.

Ben & Jerry’s, Tome—and Dean and I—go into our experimentation expecting failure. We don’t expect to get anything right the first time.

In fact, when someone tells me I’ve done well on my first try at something, I became super annoying. What makes you think I did well?  I ask. Are you humoring me? What exactly did I do right?

Because I’m learning, and learning involves failing, especially on something you’ve never tried before.

So I expect to fail at new things until I figure them out.

That’s how I’ve been approaching the expansion of the licensing side of our business. I’m learning, so I expect to fail.

What startles me is how much we’ve succeeded, mostly bumbling in the dark. As I wrote in previous posts, we’ve been licensing things since we started writing. (See the money posts), mostly taking bad advice from people who have no idea what they’re doing.

Yet, we’ve managed. Sometimes we’ve failed. And sometimes we’ve succeeded in spite of ourselves.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the Las Vegas Licensing Expo in June was the attitude at Licensing University connected to the Expo. Everyone who presented—all of them active in one form of licensing or another—spoke about the possibility of failure. They didn’t give statistics, but my sense was that for every product that was an over-the-top success, there was another that was a terrible failure. Most products and licenses did as expected, which was neither spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. They just were.

So, you’re creative. You’re a writer after all. Figure out how to handle your failures so that they don’t seem so daunting.

That way, you’ll take the kinds of risks you need to take to grow your business or to keep your business healthy.

You might be really creative and you might able to—like Ben & Jerry’s—repurpose your failures into something fun. Or you might simply keep track for yourself.

But figure out how to embrace and celebrate your failures. To incorporate them into what you do.

Stop fearing failure, because, as in the case of my co-worker, fearing failure will freeze you up and guarantee that you’ll fail.

In order to be a successful businessperson—in any field—you need to try new things, experiment, figure out what works and what doesn’t work. That’s the essence of taking risks, sure, but it’s more than that.

If your failures defeat you, you won’t last long in any business, let alone something as personal as writing. See the failure for what it really is. An opportunity to grow. Or to maybe come up with a whole other aspect to your business. Like an ice cream flavor graveyard.

Who knew that would be a success? I doubt Ben & Jerry’s did when they started it. But they had fun, and now they’re using it to turn another negative—angry customers—into a positive.

How nifty is that?

****

At the WMG Publishing Online Lectures, we’ve started a series on the things that hold writers back. From craft through business, the lecture series covers just about every roadblock we could think of. You can see those at Teachable.com.

We also have a new online workshop on attitude, which is really what holds a lot of people back. You can find that at Teachable.com as well.

We are also doing a lot of work on licensing and revamping our own business. Dean is chronicling it in a course we call Licensing Transition: A Year-Long Journey From IP To License, which you can join on Teachable.com.

Speaking of licensing, we will also have a representative from the Global Licensing Group which puts on the licensing expos around the world at our Business Master Class in October. We’ll also be discussing holding successful Kickstarters with one of the most successful Kickstarter people in the business. The 2019 Master Class is full, but we’ve decided to open 2020 early, since there was so much interest in that class. The attendance is limited there as well, and so is the hotel room block. Those who sign up early will have a guaranteed room in the conference hotel. Here’s more information on 2020.

I, of course, will continue to deal with licensing on this site and on my Patreon page. I’m more in-depth on Patreon, because I do smaller blogs along the way. I will occasionally pause to look at the news or to see if there’s something else I should be examining. Or to take a wider view as I did here.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

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“Business Musings: Expect Failure,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / AlienCat.

 

8 responses to “Business Musings: Expect Failure”

  1. Might’ve been B&J, but I mourned when they stopped making THE best low-carb ice cream I had ever eaten. I believe it was chocolate chip cookie dough, and possibly peanut butter chocolate, but they blew the competition off the yacht’s deck.

    I STILL mourn.

  2. When I first began writing, I was a member of a writers’ workshop for several years. At the beginning of the weekly meeting they’d ask for successes and failures. We’d clap for both. Failing showed you were actively participating in your career and trying so the failures were celebrated right along with the successes. It was a great learning experience for me right from the beginning.

  3. Mike says:

    “…failing to try is failing.” So true. Just like quitting writing is the only way to guarantee you fail, rather than failing by some other (often imagined) concept.

    Great post!

    And from the Tome article, “Define Success and Failure Early,” … I see a lot of similarities built into the thinking and considerations when approaching licensing deals (Post #11).

    If you define the deal on your own terms, you are drawing those lines of success/failure.

    And setting the terms of any agreement short-ish allow you to iterate on failures again and again.

  4. I suspect that this attitude comes from working in government jobs, where failure is punished, and everyone tries hard to avoid being blamed, because nothing good ever comes out of it.

    • Linda S Fox says:

      It’s not just government jobs, it’s endemic in schools. I once “failed” a teacher interview, as the question was:

      Is it ever acceptable to fail a student?

      I answered – incorrectly, it seems – that, Heck, yes! Failure in a course, or a job, or in life can be a GOOD thing if it teaches you – Don’t do that again.

      In other words, if you LEARN from your failures, they were good failures.

      Apparently, in education, that’s nearly a hate crime.

      • the6thjm says:

        Also in business, if you’re not a manager, failure is punished. Every time they roll out another measuring model they say the same thing: “Don’t worry. It’s intended to help you get better at your job.” And then, at review time, it’s “According to the measurements, you’re not performing well. No bonus.” Every. Damn. Time.

        If you’re a manager, well, managers come in, choose whichever management fad is popular and implement it. If it works, they get promoted. If it doesn’t, they either get no blowback or they leave and become a manager somewhere else and try again. And those of us left behind have to learn the NEXT manager’s fad. If you’re lucky.
        One CEO so badly screwed up our division, the entire division was closed down. HE still got a seat on the Board with golden parachutes. Me? I had to move to another state to find work.

        It’s tough, trying to overcome that aversion to failure, when failure always meant losing every bit of stability in your life.

        • Teri Babcock says:

          Your post reminds me of the time i worked for a hotel. Late ’90s, so the management program they introduced was called “Service Plus 2000”. This was the time where I developed what has turned out to be an enduring cynicism about the functional integrity of large corporations.
          The actual implementation of the ‘shared values’ of Service Plus 2000 was hypocritical and uneven. In practise upper management was exempt, and staff were expected both to express their fervent adherence to values like honesty and transparency, but know when to lie or cover-up (as in, when you are protecting the hotel or a major tenant from embarrassment or liability).

          Risk-taking was encouraged, but you were supposed to succeed. If you failed it was a problem, because you should have known it would fail and not tried it in the first place.

          My favorite part though, was that to prove your loyalty and your exceptional employee character, you had to work for free. No amount of employee excellence during paid work hours earned you any recognition or honors; this was entirely reserved for staff with conspicuous unpaid overtime.

          During the time I was there, the chain lauded the efforts of:
          -a Head of Housekeeping who was either so retentive, ineffective, or plain overloaded that he did 2 extra unpaid hours every day he worked.
          -a chef who worked a full 5 days at the hotel restaurant and then a sixth day for free for Human Resources, each week for eight months (presumably in hopes of having career options)
          -a front office staff person, who on a double shift day (2-8 hour shifts with a 4hr break in between) drove a client from Whistler to Vancouver in her own car, then back again just in time for her second shift.

  5. Laura says:

    I still mourn the oatmeal cookie flavor. That was probably 15, maybe 20 years ago, but it was the BEST. Lol.

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