TERRY PRONE: For every success story, remember others that end up on scrapheap

The purpose of the museum is to how that innovation requires failure. Picture: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg

Google Glass connected glasses were set to be a big seller but then invasion of privacy issues surfaced, writes Terry Prone

 

Entrepreneurs to the right, entrepreneurs to the left. Distrupters right, left and centre. Here we go again. Now that money is a bit more fluairseach and every county in Ireland has a dozen state-related bodies pushing self-starters, now that every second conference is aimed at those with the courage, innovation and sense of self to start their own business, it’s all go.

Which inevitably means that within a few years, many of the can’t-fail better-mousetrap concepts currently getting seed capital or crowd-funding will have bitten the dust, with the concomitant comment that Ireland is a bad place in which to fail. America is much better, goes the trope.

You can have one business after another go belly-up on you, but, stateside, no shame attaches to serial failure, whereas in Ireland, if you fail once, you’re doomed.

It would be understandable, therefore, to expect that the museum opening next week — a museum devoted entirely to business failures — would be based in the US, whereas in fact, it’s opening in Helsingborg in Sweden. The museum gathers together countless bright ideas that weren’t. Brilliant innovations that met with international apathy.

Ground breaking notions nobody wanted to pay money for. Anyone who wants to visit the new Museum of Failure can do so free of charge, in order to be led by the curators through a parade of objects that speak — loudly — to what they call “the risky business of innovation”.

The Museum of Failure is the brainchild of an organisational psychologist named Dr Samuel West, who’s been interested for a while in the reasons some ostensibly promising products end up in the skip, literally and metaphorically.

“The purpose of the museum is to show that innovation requires failure,” Dr West says. “If you are afraid of failure, then we can’t innovate. It’s to encourage organisations to be better at learning from failures — not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.”

Most of the exhibits are relatively recent. I remember, perhaps 15 years ago, a plastic mask to be worn over the face while at the end of an attached flex was a control device. It was heavily marketed using one of the female stars of Dynasty, with the implicit, if not explicit promise that using the yoke would prevent facial ageing, giving the user the flawless, wrinkle-free, unsaggy face of the star, although anybody with a titther of wit knew damn well that the star, then in her seventies, looked the way she did because of expert plastic surgery. The machine started as an expensive mail order proposition before sliding down the cost-and exclusivity chain, ending up in places like K-mart, where it failed just as decisively as it had at the higher end of the market.

That was a predictable failure, but not all of those on display were so obviously bound for disaster. Many women buy pink women’s safety razors for the removal of leg hair, despite the fact that they’re more expensive than the male equivalent and precisely the same in functionality, yet when Bic, the pen manufacturers, tried to do the same with ballpoints, they went nowhere. Bic for Her? A disaster.

Two of the exhibits I have to claim to have seen as duds from the beginning. The first of these was Google Glass. Remember it? A funny-shaped pair of spectacles that allowed you to film whatever was around you or view videos while you worked, walked or drove. They were going to be the most certain self-affirmative product ever, defining their wearers as visibly cool. That was before the invasion of privacy issue surfaced. I never met even the most avid “early adopter” who bought one, and now they occupy a place in the Museum of Failure, albeit not so big a place as the Segway. The Segway used to sell in a store called Brookstone, which I predict will, in its entirety, end up in the Museum of Failure within a year or so. Brookstone was the emporium where you could pick up clever stuff before anybody else noticed it. I remember buying a pen there which, in your breast pocket, could film record an entire hour long meeting without anybody knowing they were being filmed. And the answer to your question is, no, I never used it. Not because I don’t like spying on my colleagues, but because it was way too complicated and who, these days, carries an oversized pen in their breast pocket? Plus most of my clothes didn’t actually have breast pockets, so my potential for industrial espionage was stifled early on.

Back in the day when Brookstone was cutting edge, they sold the Segway. Correction. They presented the Segway for sale. Which they didn’t. Segways still exist. A few are used on tours of Dublin; those big-wheeled scooters. They’re also used in some American airports by security guys who would be a whole lot healthier if they walked or ran the concourses rather than whizzing around on something that takes no human energy and looks ridiculous.

The Museum of Failure needs Irish input. One of the exhibits definitely should be Guinness Light. That was the drink marketed with the marvellous slogan “They said it couldn’t be done.” “They”, in this instance, were right. Nobody wanted it and Guinness quietly filed it away, although perhaps someone, somewhere, has a can or bottle of it for Dr West.

Otherwise he’ll have to make do with Coca Cola Blak, a coffee-flavoured version of the drink, which was just as successful as Guinness Light.

It’s not quite time yet, but it’s fair to predict that the Kindle will one day be on view in Helsingborg. The Kindle has not utterly failed, but it has plateaued, despite getting cheaper and having more features added. Enough people have one for use on flights to have protested when Donald Trump threatened to make everybody bound for the US by air put it in their checked baggage, but the predictions that the physical, print-on-paper book would be obsolete have not come to pass. According to historian Mark Kurlansky, “it turns out that people like printed books. Even computer people enjoy printed books. Young people in particular enjoy printed books over e-books.”

Even in the case of an airflight where the objective is to carry several novels and non-fiction volumes in a light format, an iPad or even a smartphone will do the job a Kindle does. It’s just egging for its place in the museum, which is looking for suggestions. Water meters, maybe?

The purpose of the museum is to show that innovation requires failure


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