Harvard Business Review

Failing Toward Success at Google


Posted on Harvard Business Review: April 12, 2011 12:15 AM

In the latest Harvard Business Review, I made the argument that failures can be useful in that they teach us where our assumptions are wrong, expose dead ends, and generally can give us something of an education. In highly uncertain environments, failures are both useful and unavoidable. It was interesting, therefore, to run across an analysis of Google's failed projects over time, together with a quote issued by the company regarding each failed venture. What is interesting is Google's philosophy of launching early and quickly, and their perhaps too-quick closure of some products. It is also interesting that founders of several hot startup companies (Foursquare and Twitter come to mind) cut their teeth and gained technical exposure by experimenting at Google.

I'm often asked by companies how many experiments are needed to find a good "hit rate" of successes. If Google is any indication, the ratio is pretty high. That being said, what company would not be pleased to have maintained dominance in search, toppled the Blackberry in market share for smart phones at neck-breaking speed, hosted millions of e-mail users with gmail, and helped millions of us find our way with Google maps?

So, the list of misses to accompany these hits?

Google Wave (May 2009 to August 2010)

The product was announced with formidable press and very high expectations amidst the belief that it would revolutionize e-mail and other forms of communication. It failed to revolutionize much.

Google SearchWiki (November 2008 to March 2010)

This offering allowed people to tailor search results to their own liking — the unfortunate thing was that, once selected, there was no way to opt out and people found it cluttered up the basic search result.

Google Audio Ads (January 2006 to February 2009)

This hugely expensive venture (which I actually mention in the article) attempted to import Google's technology to the world of radio advertising and make money the same way the company does on the Internet. Problem? Radically different business model with assumptions that didn't apply.

Google Video (January 2005 to January 2009)

This venture ended up not being competitive with YouTube, which Google ended up buying for over $1 billion.

Dodgeball (May 2005 to January 2009)

This was a location-based service that foreshadowed FourSquare. One of its founders, citing incredible frustration after Google purchased the firm, went on to found FourSquare, leaving Google behind in the social mobile networking space.

Jaiku (October 2007 to January 2009)

This was a microblogging site (think Twitter) that Google acquired and then did little with. Ironically, one of the co-founders of Twitter was Ev Williams, who had earlier sold Google Pyra Labs, which became the foundation for its successful Blogger.com platform.

Google Notebook (May 2006 - January 2009)

This product allowed people to clip information from the web and store it in digital 'notebooks.' Apparently, not enough people felt the service was all that useful and it, too, was closed.

Google Catalogs (December 2001 to January 2009)

This was a way to search catalogs, which limped along for many years before Google shut it down.

Google Print Ads (November 2006 to January 2009)

As with radio, Google thought it could bring its business model to the world of newspaper advertising. That didn't work out so well.

Google Page Creator (April 2006 to August 2008)

Another way to build web sites, eventually shut down in favor of Google sites.

Google Answers (April 2002 to November 2006)

This was a service that used paid researchers to answer questions. Ironically, the year Google shut it down other answer-based products were increasing in popularity at sites such as Yahoo.

Which brings us back to the basic point: If you want to find the big successes, failure comes with the territory.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Rita McGrath is well known for developing practical tools and frameworks to make the innovation process less risky and difficult, and to bring a dose of reality to growth programs. She works extensively with leadership teams in Global 1,000 companies. McGrath has co-authored six Harvard Business Review articles and two books: The Entrepreneurial Mindset (2000) and MarketBusters: 40 Strategic Moves that Drive Exceptional Business Growth (2005).

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