Product Innovation Trends

When Perseverance Doesn’t Pay Off

“‘We were not building the [Fire Phone] for the customer—we were building it for Jeff,’ this source says. With Bezos managing every critical decision, teams began second-guessing themselves trying to anticipate how he would react.”

“The Real Story Behind Jeff Bezos’s Fire Phone Debacle And What It Means For Amazon’s Future” Fast Company

“Fail Harder” is something a former boss of mine (and a Wieden+Kennedy exec prior to that) used to quote as a way to calm the concerns of the clients we worked with whenever a bold idea was met with resistance. It’s the kind of phrase that you’d expect would be a call to arms for a creative agency or a startup, where experimentation is as vital to company growth as air is to its employees.

It’s also easy to see how the sentiment of “Fail Harder” might clash with the ways that a more established company works.

With over two decades in business it’s easy to place Amazon in the established category, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t maintained the sense of urgency and drive of its startup origins. Case in point: the Fire Phone, which has, by most judgments, been an experiment that has failed hard.

Theories why abound, as does criticism. But the premise of Fast Company’s above article is compelling: The main problem with the product is that it was conceived, designed and built around one customer—Bezos himself. And that may well be the reason it failed.

As early Google employee and serial entrepreneur Alberto Savoia illustrates in his brilliant, practical and essential white paper about minimizing the risk of marketplace failure through the process of product “pretotyping,” flops are attributed to one or more of three main causes: Failure in Launch, Operations or Premise. In light of the Fire Phone flameout, Alberto offers wise and timeless counsel for anyone in the business of conceiving, designing, building, testing and marketing products.

Savoia’s sage advice aside, this launch is a rare misfire for Amazon. With its Kindle, web services, free shipping and e-commerce retailing of seemingly anything it can legally sell, so many of the company’s products have been designed to get customers to buy from and return to an ecosystem they never need to—or, more important, never want to—leave.

This raises a question: The Fire Phone is being judged on its value as a smartphone, but is it really a just another smartphone? As one reader of the article suggested in a comment, “Bezos is aiming to create a tool so that Amazon can capture the instinct to want to buy and making it always there within reach.”

Amazon’s CEO is indeed a savvy student of human instincts; he’s created worlds designed around convenience and ease which his customers willingly inhabit, and which in turn prompt his competition to try and be more Amazon-like.

Jeff Bezos may be guilty of following a singular passion that was, perhaps, misunderstood, but only the future will tell if it was truly misguided—assuming the company has the money and appetite for risk that additional Fire Phone iterations would require.