James Dyson failed 5,126 times to create a bagless vacuum cleaner. Whilst his 5,127th attempt was a success many would have given up long before then.
Dyson then failed again and again to convince manufacturers to adopt his invention. Yet today Dyson employs over 3,000 staff and sells into over 50 countries. His personal wealth exceeds £1 billion.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time. “
Thomas A. Edison
Now the question is, were Edison and Dyson habitual failures? Of course not, but would you have thought that when Edison was presenting the results from attempt number 9,999 or Dyson’s 5,126 prototype? I suspect not, and the sobering thought is that the difference between failure and success can literally be one more try.
Perhaps like Edison we should be careful how we define failure: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Said Edison.
But understandably most people like to focus on success rather than failure. However, would you want to be as successful as Netscape who pioneered the web browser or perhaps Kodak who once employed over 145,000 people and had a near monopoly on photographic film?
They were once very successful and innovative businesses that were almost driven out of existence through either disruptive technology or business model.
“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
So what does any of this teach me about success and failure? Well neither are persistent states but simply events on a continuous journey. You should treat both success and failure with equal caution and objectivity; Success shouldn’t stop you changing, failure shouldn’t stop you trying.
“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
Whilst failure should drive you to adapt and change (“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” – Henry Ford), success shouldn’t be a reason NOT to change.
Whilst Einstein noted that “Doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting different results, is the definition of crazy” it is also true that in business “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same results, is the definition of crazy” because the market, technology and competition change and these days it changes frequently.
The fact your model, product, technology, service succeeded yesterday is no guarantee that it will achieve the same success tomorrow; Success can make you complacent.
Since success can lead to failure and failure can lead to success, the question I have to ask myself is not can I afford to fail, rather can afford not to try? For Dyson, the result of 5,126 failures was a hugely successful business and £1 billion personal fortune.
In my book on Business Innovation (available here) I explore these topics in more depth.