There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all


I doubt Bob Dylan had entrepreneurs in mind when he wrote that lyric in the song Love Minus Zero/No Limit. And I’m not sure I understand what he’s saying either, but Dylan’s great at creating enigmatic aphorisms, as well as song titles that are inscrutable at best.

But Bill Gates, who I doubt was the Dylan fanatic his competitor Steve Jobs was, came up with a great quote that every entrepreneur should take to heart: “Success is a terrible teacher.” Jean-Louis Gassée, in his Monday Note #519,even improved on this quote when writing about Steve Jobs:

As Bill Gates once felicitously said, “success is a terrible teacher”. (The French translation, maîtresse, is even better as it combines knowledge and infatuation.) The success of the Apple ][ might have seduced Jobs into believing that he knew while he might have simply been a kind of Chauncey Gardner: At the right place at the right time.

I was a victim of the success syndrome myself, thinking that after starting two companies backed by a host of blue chip VCs and corporate venture arms of companies like Apple Computer, that I could start a third company by myself, based on my own idea. You can find the Throughline story elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t repeat it.

Startups are hard and just because you have done one or two before doesn’t mean you’ll succeed again. Mitch Kapor, did a brilliant job of creating Lotus 1-2-3, the spreadsheet that succeeded VisiCalc and preceded today’s standard, Microsoft Excel (which may in turn be superseded by Google Sheets) and Lotus Development Corporaton. But he could never match the success of 1-2-3, though he tried mightily with Symphony, Agenda, and Jazz at Lotus. In fact Jazz, a Macintosh variation of Symphony, was such a turkey that Jim Manzi, who took over from Mitch as CEO of Lotus, joked that “We got more returns of Jazz than we shipped!”

Mitch went on to try more companies and yet more products, On Technology being one company I recall, before hitting his stride as an angel investor, where he has probably made far more money than he ever made at Lotus or elsewhere.

Silicon Valley likes to focus on failure and how it’s a great teacher and how successful entrepreneurs just fail harder the next time. But not enough attention is paid to the perils of success!

If you are interested in a computer industry veteran’s view of today’s tech world you can subscribe to Gassée’s weekly Monday Note newsletter, as I do, for worthwhile insights as well as interesting historical tidbits from his fifty years of experience in the computer industry.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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