The founder of the Museum of Failure reveals why being unsuccessful can have a definite upside.

Dr. Samuel West makes it very clear from the outset: He’s not trying to glorify failure or promote it in any way, and he certainly doesn’t recommend it as a corporate objective. “But everyone has to accept failure because it’s going to happen to them,” he reasons. “In every area of our lives, we have to be less fearful of it.”

Which is why, last June, West – a clinical and organizational psychologist – decided to open an entire museum dedicated to the subject. Welcome, he says, to the Museum of Failure, an antidote to what he sees as “a relentless round of sugar-coated corporate success stories.” Inside, visitors will find a range of commercial products, inventions and services that bombed spectacularly with consumers. “I wanted to uncover the real stories of companies developing unsuccessful products,” he says. “I thought they should be heard too, because it’s OK to fail. It’s human to fail.”

The museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, has been closed for the last few months but reopens in April, and reactions from the press and the public since its launch have been “overwhelming.” It prompted West to begin a U.S. pop-up tour of the Museum of Failure, which started in Los Angeles in December. The LA pop-up is scheduled to run until February, but he hopes it will ultimately become a permanent fixture in the city. Both locations feature a range of different artifacts.

Alongside some famously failed products such as the Betamax video cassette and the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car, there are also some highly unusual ones, such as the eau de toilette fragrance from a motorbike company or the pens developed “especially for women.” Some are strange, such as a “rejuvenating” mask that delivered electric shocks to the wearer’s face and others are just plain surprising. The Newton digital assistant, for instance, was a rare failure for Apple (it launched in 1993 but was cancelled in 1998); but, says West, lessons were learnt from it and it did, ultimately, lead to the development of the iPhone. Google Glass, a more recent, wearable tech innovation, is also on display after failing because it fell foul of privacy issues – although it’s been reported that Google is now in the process of reinventing it.

Before the opening, West found most of his artifacts online, but the success and publicity the museum has generated means he’s now often given donations from the public. Recently, for instance, he received a parcel containing cappuccino-flavor potato chips. “Every week, someone sends me another bad product idea,” he says.

There was, however, a nagging doubt in West’s mind before the museum’s launch. What if no one came? What if, ironically, it was a total failure? “I was terrified initially,” he says, admitting that there would have been a bizarrely pleasing circularity to the whole enterprise if it hadn’t been a success. “But I calmed down later when companies started visiting with their teams. That’s gone crazy, actually: I’ve had so many requests for tours from businesses – particularly ones in France, U.K. and Germany. I think they see that it isn’t just a funny and quirky museum, but a place where they can really learn something.”

What’s your criteria for displaying a product in the museum?

I have three: It has to be a failure, of course – and the definition of that is “a deviation from expected or desired outcomes.” It also has to be a new business model that somehow didn’t work. And it has to be interesting or fun. I want it to be entertaining as well as informative.

Why did the artifacts in the museum fail? 

The reality is that innovation is risky. Some products – like the pens for women – aren’t great ideas to begin with. But others can fail at the design stage, in production, or in delivery – and sometimes for reasons that are totally outside a company’s control. For example, there was a popular slimming product in the 1970s called Ayds, whose sales were badly affected in the 1980s because of the AIDS epidemic. That’s something the company making the product couldn’t have foreseen.

Is failure healthy?

In a way. Innovation springs from failure: You can’t have one without the other. If someone in a company wants to try something brand new, I say give them the money, let them try it and if they fail, get them to learn from it and then move on to something new. If they do that, at least one out of 10 initiatives will work and be very profitable.

Are some businesses better at accepting failure now?

Some are. Jeff Bezos from Amazon, for example, has said that he wants his company to be “the best place in the world to fail.” To do that, though, you have to be able to adapt quickly – which is what Amazon is good at doing.

Do we have to change our relationship with failure?

That’s my personal mission! I want to be part of a movement that destigmatizes failure. Failure is never going to be a positive experience, but it doesn’t have to be so negative that it dictates our future behavior and stops us from taking risks. I don’t want people to feel better about failure because, by definition, it’s uncomfortable. But I do want them to embrace that discomfort because doing so can make us better and wiser. That’s the message of the museum. —  Tony Greenway

Published: January 2018

Image: Museum of Failure