Monthly Archives: May 2014

Learning from Failure – Alberto Santos-Dumont and Nespresso

This is a short English version of my original post at HBR France about how to innovate after failure (in French). The post has been inspired by my research into business model innovation as well as the adventures of Alberto Santos-Dumont. Alberto was a French-Brazilian aviation pioneer from the early 20th century. Passionate about aviation, Alberto spent several years of his life, using up much of his father’s fortune, amassed at the coffee plantations in Brazil, to build a perfect flying machine.

After numerous experiments with the smallest balloon in the world in 1898, Alberto embarked on the development of airships or dirigibles (balloon with an engine). Alberto built eleven airships, which he financed and flew himself until 1905. He was especially motivated to win the competition launched by the French industrialist Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe, offering 100,000 francs to the constructor of an airship that could travel in less than 30 minutes the distance between Saint-Cloud and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was only after several failures and near-disasters with different models that Alberto managed to win the prize in 1901. With each new model, Santos-Dumont changed and experimented with several parameters of his airship, and it was only after several years that he managed to build a perfect airship, and then an airplane.

I argue in my HBR post that systematic experimentation is important not only to build airships but also to introduce new products and to innovate business models. In a more contemporary example, Nestlé has experimented with many markets and business models before finding success for the Nespresso system. In the early 1980s Nestlé first tried to sell automatic machines to make high-quality espresso to restaurants. After failing with this market, the company decided to change in 1982, trying to sell Nespresso to offices instead. After another failure, and before the final closure of the project by management, Nestlé decided to give the last chance to selling Nespresso machine and capsules to the households in 1987. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the rest of the story is history.

Experimentation and systematic learning from failure are very important components of the innovation process. In addition, the role of time is significant. Innovation is a process, a state of mind rather than an outcome . After launching the first balloon in 1898, Alberto spent several years building and destroying his airships before starting the first industrial manufacturing plant for airplanes with Adolphe Clément in 1908. It was his plane Demoiselle No. 19 , which became the world’s first aircraft produced in series , with a production time of 15 days per aircraft.

Similarly, Nestlé bought the first patents for Nespresso, originally developed at the Battelle Institute in Geneva in 1974, launched the product to the household market during the late 1980ies, and reached break-even on the project in 1995, more than twenty years later.

Innovation can require several years to bear fruit. It might be wise to follow Jacques Prévert’s advice for executing innovative tasks (about how to make the portrait of a bird in this case):

“do not become discouraged
wait for years if you have to
the speed or the sluggishness of the bird’s arrival
has no effect
on the outcome of your painting”.

For more information about Alberto Santos-Dumont, check this movie: