From Failures to Success: Lessons Learned from the Lisa, a Notable Entrepreneurial Flop

Sep 19 / Mariam at Creo Incubator
Entrepreneurship, by its very nature, is characterised by a high degree of uncertainty. When individuals embark on entrepreneurial endeavors, they often navigate uncharted territory, facing unpredictable market dynamics, evolving customer preferences, and technological shifts.

The act of introducing innovative products to the market, while potentially revolutionary, also disrupts existing norms and patterns. This creative destruction, as proposed can lead to the displacement of established products or services, potentially rendering them obsolete.
Within this landscape of uncertainty and disruption, failure becomes an inherent aspect of the entrepreneurial journey. Since entrepreneurs are pioneering new ideas, products, or services, they're venturing into unknown terrain where success is far from guaranteed. Failures in the form of unsuccessful product launches, market rejection, or financial setbacks are not only common but expected. These failures, however, are not merely setbacks; they serve as valuable learning experiences.

Some people even employ reverse brainstorming as a powerful technique to come up with creative solutions. By thinking about the opposite of their goal, they can discover innovative ideas that they might not have considered otherwise.
In this article, we embark on a journey to understand the essence of business failure. Our first step is to define what exactly constitutes a business failure. Moving forward, we delve into a prominent case study—the story of the Apple Lisa computer—examining its intricacies and lessons. Once we've dissected failure, we pivot to explore the aftermath, uncovering what follows in the wake of a setback. And to conclude, we unravel practical strategies to rise above failure, offering actionable insights on how to navigate and triumph over adversity in the world of business.

How Do We Define Failure?
The origins of entrepreneurial failure stem from various underlying factors. These factors are usually classified based on where the main reasons are located. Entrepreneurial failure can arise from both external and internal factors. Often, a combination of these factors contributes to failure, involving both factors within and outside the entrepreneur's control. Nevertheless, the significance of specific factors can differ in their influence.

Jenkins and Meckvies, distinguished experts in the realm of business and entrepreneurship, have conducted in-depth research on entrepreneurial failure, culminating in the categorization of this phenomenon into four distinct and illuminating classifications. Here’s what they found:

Objective Firm Level Criteria
Commonly, when describing entrepreneurial failure, insolvency is used as the defining criterion for identifying entrepreneurial failure, whereby failure is characterised by a firm's inability to continue operating due to a significant drop in revenues and/or a substantial increase in expenses, leading to insolvency and an inability to attract new funding. This perspective focuses on an objective financial event and its implications, particularly emphasizing the responses and consequences entrepreneurs face in coping with the failure.

Subjective Firm Level Criteria
Entrepreneurial failure is characterised subjectively by evaluating the entrepreneur's assessment of their firm's performance at the time of exit. This definition takes into account factors such as poor performance, distress, underachievement of objectives, and voluntary cessation, encompassing situations where firms are shut down due to various reasons, even if they haven't declared bankruptcy. This subjective perspective captures both "positive" and "negative" exits based on the entrepreneur's choice and perception of failure.

Subjective Individual Level Criteria
Entrepreneurial failure can be defined by its impact on entrepreneurs, focusing on personal hardships, financial challenges, emotional implications, and the potential for learning and recovery from the experience.

Objective Individual Level Criteria
Entrepreneurial failure can also be defined in two key lenses: one centers on a venture falling short of its goals, often tied to economic viability thresholds and cessation of involvement by the entrepreneur; the other emphasises an entrepreneur's exit when their venture's performance doesn't meet personal expectations, influenced by their human capital and alternative employment prospects.

The Apple Lisa: A Tale of Trials
When Steve Jobs introduced The Apple Lisa computer, it faced a combination of factors that led to its failure in the market. Its high price tag of $9,995 positioned it as an expensive option compared to other personal computers of its time, like the IBM PC priced at $1,565. Additionally, the Lisa's technical limitations, particularly its sluggish performance due to its hardware, hindered its usability. The closed software ecosystem and lack of third-party software further restricted its functionality.

Despite being innovative, the Lisa struggled with technical problems, such as issues with its "Twiggy" floppy drive. Strategic misalignment with its intended business market and the overshadowing introduction of the Apple Macintosh a year later added to its challenges. Moreover, the Lisa lacked compatibility with IBM mainframe systems, a key requirement for corporate customers. Despite its failure, the Lisa's influence on shaping the evolution of graphical user interfaces, as seen in subsequent products like the Macintosh and Windows, remains significant.

The lessons learned from its shortcomings played a crucial role in guiding Apple's future product strategies.

A Wealth of Lessons From Failure
The Apple Lisa holds a significant place in Apple's history as one of its most influential failures. Although it didn't achieve commercial success, its impact on the course of computing history cannot be overlooked. The reasons behind the Lisa's failure are diverse, yet its significance transcends its mere market performance. Here's why the Lisa's influence remains noteworthy:

Introduced Graphical User Interface
The Lisa was a trailblazer in introducing graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse-driven interaction to personal computing. Despite its challenges in affordability and performance, it introduced fundamental concepts like windows, icons, menus, and pointers that laid the groundwork for modern computing experiences.

Its legacy resonates strongly in the development of the Apple Macintosh, which arrived a year later in 1984. The Macintosh built upon the Lisa's GUI innovations, refining them for a more accessible and user-friendly interface. This GUI evolution also profoundly influenced Microsoft's Windows, shaping the graphical interfaces that have become ubiquitous today.

User Experience
The Lisa's struggle to find its market underscored the importance of user experience and pricing alongside technological innovation. This lesson prompted Apple to reevaluate its product strategies, culminating in the Macintosh and subsequent products that prioritised user-friendly design and overall experience.

Introspection and Team Coordination
The Lisa's setbacks prompted a pivotal introspection within Apple, leading to improved leadership, vision, and team coordination. These lessons reverberated across future projects, contributing to Apple's eventual triumphs.

A Catalyst for Change
Ultimately, the Apple Lisa's impact was transformational. Its failure acted as a catalyst for change, birthing the Macintosh and democratizing GUI-based computing. Beyond Apple, its GUI innovations resonated through Windows and other operating systems, shaping the modern computing landscape. While commercially unsuccessful, the Lisa's technological legacy and the wisdom it imparted from its missteps have indelibly shaped the trajectory of computing history.

Understanding Failure
The failure of the Apple Lisa can be analysed within the context of several criteria of failure that we mentioned above:

1. Objective Firm Level Criteria:

The Apple Lisa's failure can be partially attributed to objective financial factors. While the passage doesn't explicitly mention insolvency, the high price tag of $9,995 and its subsequent inability to attract a significant customer base due to technical limitations contributed to its commercial failure. These factors align with the idea of a firm's inability to continue operating due to financial challenges, although bankruptcy might not have been the outcome.

2. Subjective Firm Level Criteria:

The failure of the Lisa also aligns with subjective firm level criteria. Its poor market performance, technical problems, and the overshadowing introduction of the Apple Macintosh a year later indicate poor performance and an underachievement of objectives. These factors could lead to the entrepreneur's subjective assessment of failure, even if bankruptcy wasn't the reason for shutting down the Lisa project.

3. Subjective Individual Level Criteria:

The failure of the Lisa could have had personal and emotional implications for the individuals involved in its development, especially Steve Jobs. It might have affected their reputation, morale, and emotional well-being due to the disappointment of not achieving the expected success.

4. Objective Individual Level Criteria:

From this perspective, the Lisa's failure might align with the second lens, where the venture fell short of its goals and didn't meet the economic viability thresholds. This could be seen in terms of its inability to capture a significant market share and generate substantial revenues.

Life Beyond Failure: The Road to Recovery

Recovery Phase
The recovery phase is like a healing process after failure. It takes some time and distance to get over the tough feelings from failing. There are three parts to recovering from failure: first, there's a break where the entrepreneur tries to emotionally heal; then, they think really hard about what happened; and finally, they start trying to move forward and find new chances. While the recovery phase mainly affects the entrepreneur's feelings, that last part – taking action and learning from what happened – has a big impact on the entrepreneur's future ventures.

The Re-Emergence Phase
During the re-emergence phase, when entrepreneurs are picking themselves up after failure, they learn four main things:

(1) they learn more about themselves, like what they're good at, what they're not so good at, and their attitudes and beliefs;

(2) they figure out what went right and wrong with their business, including why it failed; 

(3) they learn about the relationships they have with others, both inside and outside the business; and

(4) they get better at running businesses.

This phase shows that the effects of entrepreneurial failure have a big impact on the entrepreneur, the businesses they had before and will have in the future, and the overall business environment.

How Do We Learn From Failure?
Mueller and Shepherd studied how people learn from failure. They connected experiences of failure and certain types of knowledge to the ability to spot new opportunities. The idea is that people recognise opportunities by using models they already know to find promising new ideas.

They also found that people who are really good at recognizing opportunities can turn their failure experiences into knowledge about finding opportunities. This helps entrepreneurs match their products with what the market needs.

Lastly, people who don't rely much on formal knowledge do better when they've failed and try to adjust their business. This is because people who know a lot about a field might be set in their ways. So, learning from failure depends on personal traits. These traits, along with what's learned, can affect how people act in the future, the choices they make as entrepreneurs, and even the organizations they're part of.

Practically, How Do We Get Saved from Failure?

Price Competitively
Carefully consider your product's pricing strategy. While innovation is important, pricing your product competitively within the market is crucial. Offering affordable options can help attract a wider customer base and make your product more appealing.

Adapt to Feedback
Be open to feedback and willing to adapt your product based on user insights. Apple's shift from the Lisa to the Macintosh demonstrates the importance of listening to customer feedback and making necessary changes to better meet their needs.

Build a Strong Ecosystem
Foster a diverse and vibrant ecosystem of third-party developers and partners. An ecosystem of complementary products and services can enhance the value of your offering and create a more appealing package for customers. For this reason, networking would be essential to be able to include third parties.

Apple worked to cultivate a rich software ecosystem for the Macintosh by encouraging third-party developers to create applications for the platform. This approach ensured a diverse range of software options for users, enhancing the overall value of the Macintosh.

Learn from Setbacks
Treat failures and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning. Instead of being discouraged by failures, analyse what went wrong, identify lessons learned, and use that knowledge to improve your future endeavors.

Learning from the Lisa's high price tag, Apple adopted a more competitive pricing strategy for the Macintosh. By offering a more affordable option, Apple aimed to appeal to a broader range of consumers and capture a larger market share. This approach contributed to the Macintosh's success in the market.

Have a Clear Vision and Leadership
Establish a clear vision for your product and ensure strong leadership and coordination within your teams. A well-defined vision guides decision-making and keeps your teams aligned towards a common goal.
Apple's experience with the Lisa led to a reevaluation of its internal processes and leadership structure. The company recognised the need for tighter leadership, clearer vision, and better coordination among teams working on different projects. This contributed to improved collaboration and more successful product development in the future.

Employ Innovative Marketing
Think creatively about your marketing strategies. Innovative and attention-grabbing marketing efforts can generate excitement and awareness around your product, helping it stand out in a competitive landscape.
Apple employed innovative marketing strategies to promote the Macintosh. For example, the famous "1984" Super Bowl commercial introduced the Macintosh to the world and generated significant buzz. Additionally, special pricing programs, such as offering reduced prices to college students, helped expand the Macintosh's installed base.

Encourage a Culture of Innovation
Create an environment where innovation is encouraged and failure is seen as a stepping stone to success. Embrace a culture that fosters continuous learning, experimentation, and the pursuit of new ideas. For instance, the T-M-O framework has been shown to be a powerful tool for innovation .

Stay Resilient
Entrepreneurship is filled with challenges and uncertainties. Stay resilient in the face of adversity and setbacks. Your ability to adapt and persevere can ultimately determine the trajectory of your venture.

Iterate and Improve
Embrace an iterative approach to product development. Continuously seek opportunities for improvement and refinement based on user feedback and market trends.
Apple's experience with the Lisa failure fostered a culture of continuous learning and innovation. The company was not deterred by setbacks and failures but used them as opportunities for growth and improvement. This mindset has been a driving force behind Apple's ongoing success.

Maximise Collaborations
Collaborate with others in the industry to leverage expertise, resources, and insights. Learning from others' experiences and sharing knowledge can help you navigate challenges more effectively.

Focus on Long-Term Impact
Look beyond short-term gains and focus on building products with lasting impact. Strive to create solutions that not only address immediate needs but also contribute to the advancement of your industry.

In the dynamic world of entrepreneurship, failures are not dead ends, but stepping stones towards growth. The story of the Apple Lisa stands as a testament to this notion, showcasing how even a setback can fuel innovation and transformation. As we conclude this exploration of entrepreneurial failure and recovery, we invite you to embrace failure not as a defeat, but as an opportunity for introspection, learning, and reinvention. Let the lessons from the Lisa inspire you to chart your path, armed with knowledge and resilience.

Remember, in the realm of business, every fall has the potential to propel you to new heights. Seize the lessons, adapt your strategies, and embark on your journey towards success, armed with the wisdom gained from failures past.

Ready to seize the reins of your journey? Immerse yourself in a realm of perpetual learning and growth. Don't miss the chance to level up your business game – experience our transformative programme today!
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