The price of failure

Friday, 9. February 2018 - 11:45

What are the things that you’ve got wrong in your business: the situations in which you tried to do something different or new - and failed?

Most of us prefer not to talk about this kind of thing. I don’t often hear wine producers admit that blending Arneis and Chardonnay didn’t really turn out the way they’d hoped. Or that customers were more resistant to a screwcap Grand Cru Classé than they’d anticipated. Or that trying to cut down on fossil fuels by switching to delivery by horse-and-cart was actually far too costly.

But there’s a growing acknowledgment of the value of failure. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, laughs off the sneering comments about the hundreds of billions of dollars that were ploughed into his company’s unsuccessful Fire Phone. “If you think that's a big failure, we're working on much bigger failures right now. And I am not kidding. And some of them are going to make the Fire Phone look like a tiny little blip," he says. “To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”

The Indian giant Tata Steel, owner of Jaguar Land Rover, among other brands, has gone further than most in this direction - by running a competition for its staff entitled ‘Dare To Try’ that is specifically dedicated to unsuccessful initiatives.

The simple principle behind it is perfectly expressed by an American saying I’ve always liked: ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’. Or, ‘If you’ve never failed, you’ve probably never tried.’

There are far too many reasons for members of the wine industry not to leave their comfort zone. Wine styles are either dictated by traditional appellation rules, or by marketing executives’ certainty that ‘the market’ won’t accept something with which they aren’t familiar. It’s far easier to come up with a slightly differently packaged and branded Pinot Grigio than to try to break through with a Pinot Bianco, let alone a blend of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer. Just as it is far too tempting to take the 2017 marketing plan and cut-and-paste it into 2018, with the same old trade show stands, press trips and sponsorships.

Trying something different calls for imagination and courage - and the confidence that failure may be uncomfortable but not existentially threatening. 

I’ll freely admit to having failed in an attempt to sell screwcap-sealed French red wine in America, and to having misjudged the readiness of the wine world in general to accept PET bottles. Some people will read this last sentence and either scoff at me for trying either of these initiatives. Or they will shake their heads, saying “well, it worked for us.” Obviously, failure or success are almost never simply a question of what you do: it’s how you do it and when. Failure may simply be a consequence of poor or unlucky timing; now might be the moment to have another go with those screwcaps.

Anyway, I’m off next week to work on a new wine concept that may very well fail. Perhaps it won’t. But even if it does, I’m looking forward to the lesson the experience will teach me.
Robert Joseph