When we started our own literacy program in 2011, we wanted to prove that we could take a small number of students, get big gains from them, and thus drive up overall test scores. We’ve now done this on a grade, school, and district level. In the midst of this success, it’s important to talk about failure. Yes, failure, because we’ve had plenty of that too.
Somebody once told me, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” If that’s true, then I must have been exerting maximum effort in high school because my career there was only notable for its complete lack of achievement! In fact, my senior year I was voted "Most Likely to End Up In a Foreign Jail." (kidding, of course - although that almost happened my first day in Africa).
More to the point, I think this advice was given in the spirit of a coach I once had who used to make a distinction between errors of commission and errors of omission. He said he would never fault us for mistakes we made while trying, only the mistakes we made by not trying.
I think this is true. The more you attempt, the more you are bound to fail because no one has a 100% success rate. My first business failure took place shortly after starting my first business – an online publishing company. I started it in grad school because of sticker shock at the cost of my textbooks. Everything at that time was trending towards online solutions – online banking, online video, online advertising.
Online textbooks seemed like a natural progression, so I started a business for college professors that would take the book chapters, articles, and videos they assigned in their classes and organize them on a web page. They could update the syllabus in real time and the cost to their students was half of what they paid at the bookstore.
A solution that was cheaper, more flexible, and more efficient – a recipe for success, right?
Wrong. What I failed to see is that college professors had no incentive to switch to online textbooks. Contrary to their reputation as progressive thinkers, they really are hidebound traditionalists when it comes to prerogatives like tenure, merit pay, and…selling their own books at university bookstores.
The privilege of assigning their own work is something professors take very seriously. Allowing us to publish this material and thereby hijack the royalties they would otherwise earn was never in the cards. Even those who didn’t write their own textbooks proved to be unmoved by the idea because…well, they just weren’t moved.
Never underestimate the power of inertia. Many frustrated entrepreneurs I talk to blame “conditions” – the business cycle, the market, regulation, investors, etc. Some even accuse their customers of lacking sophistication or intelligence.
It’s a bad sign when you start blaming customers for your failures, so always remember that even the best idea faces an uphill struggle simply because it is new and disruptive. It’s not so much that everyone is conspiring against you, it’s that the status quo is called that for a reason. It’s comfortable. It’s something everyone is used to. It is embodied in the phrase: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Well, vacuum tubes weren’t broken, but they were replaced by microprocessors. Landline telephones worked just fine, but cell phones marginalized them. Lots of people enjoy print newspapers, but they have been overtaken by online content.
Why some innovations succeed and others fail is one of the mysteries of the universe. Timing has a lot to do with it. The first fax machine was shown at the New York City World’s Fair in 1964 but didn’t become widely used until 30 years later. Anyone who invested heavily in fax machines in 1964 would have been wiped out. It just wasn’t their time.
And it really isn’t the time for online textbooks either. The company I started sixteen years ago has exactly two customers. They seem to enjoy its convenience, and their students certainly like the cheaper price tag, but I would not call a business with two customers a success. After a few years, I had to cut bait and move on to something else.
That something else turned into Mile High Education Services. Success can come in a very roundabout way.