Failing in Business Isn't Even Failing — It's Gaining Life Experience

Entrepreneur and Investor

Taking risks in business means that sometimes you will fail, says AOL cofounder Steve Case. Experimentation is the essence of progress, whether it's in the sciences or in business, and most major social achievements are a result of a big ideas realized through countless small experiments. In America's quest to land a man on the moon, for example, committing small mistakes along the way was the only path toward success.

Case gives another example: Babe Ruth. Yes, the Great Bambino is remembered for being the home run king, but he was also the strikeout king. "If you're swinging for the fences," says Case, "you’re going to strike out. But you have to keep at it and if you keep at it you sometimes will have those homeruns. Sometimes you’ll win those games." Thus failing in business isn't really failing at all, but rather gaining life experience, so you'll do better the next time around.

In this video clip, Case discusses some of the roadblocks he encountered as co-founder of AOL, which at one point brought the Internet to half of all Americans going online. Case's book is The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision of the Future.

  • Transcript


Steve Case: I think failing fast is important. Experimentation is important. And the great breakthroughs in society usually have required multiple tries, multiple experiments, multiple pivots. And that’s the whole idea of getting in there, getting some experience and then taking a step back and figuring out how you move forward.

The most classic case of this was the whole idea that John F. Kennedy started about getting somebody in to space, landing somebody on the moon. When he said that he called for the country to rally around that, it almost was impossible for people to imagine that happening. The technology just wasn’t there. But people tried things, many times failed. This they thought would work, it didn’t work. They kept adjusting, kept at it. And eventually they were successful in landing somebody on the moon and bringing them back home safely.

So that’s a perfect example of many different experiments. People see this in science. They know that in order to have a breakthrough in science you have to try a lot of things. Most things will fail. And I remind people that Babe Ruth was the home run king. But he also was the strike out king. If you’re swinging for the fences you’re going to strike out. But you have to keep at it and if you keep at it you sometimes will have those homeruns. Sometimes you’ll win those games.

So I think it requires a mindset around experimentation and taking risks knowing that many things you try won’t work. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. That just means that idea failed and what can you learn from that idea and then move forward.

Sometimes you do have to call it quits. So sometimes things are just not working. But my own experience is sometimes just when you think that finally something breaks through and the sky opens up and there’s new possibilities. We came very close to not making it with AOL. There was many times where it didn’t quite work. We thought something would work. It didn’t. We had to lay people off. We were about to run out of money. We had a partnership that fell apart. There were some near death experiences on that road.

And I used to joke that AOL was a ten year in the making overnight success. By the time it finally got successful everybody said you came out of nowhere. No we didn’t. We were at it for a decade. And thankfully we didn’t give up. We didn’t quit. We stuck with it.

So sometimes you have to just say it’s not working. You have to walk away. But my experience is if you really believed in that idea early, you really were passionate about that idea, you still think it could get traction, for some reason it just hasn’t broken through, take a fresh look at what partnerships you can establish to help accelerate the growth. What new policy perhaps could be put in place to accelerate the new growth. Don’t give up on it. There’s a great Nelson Mandela quote: “It always seems impossible until it happens.”