Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Failure at Amazon Is Easily His Biggest Success

Amazon once made a smartphone. Known as the Fire Phone, it was maybe the worst piece of technology made in the last 20 years. It was really that bad. 

It only took three months for the company to write down the value of the remaining inventory, though you could still buy one for 99 cents on a contract. A little over a year later, Amazon stopped selling it altogether. 

That’s because it wasn’t a good phone. You could argue it was a good idea, but that’s really only true if the thing you really want in a smartphone is a device that makes it easier to buy things from Amazon–something that, let’s be honest, is not exactly difficult. 

Sure, it had some novel tech built-in, like what Amazon called Dynamic Perspective, something that used four cameras on the front of the device to detect the position of your head and then adjust the content on the display to produce a sort of 3D effect. Just because something is novel, doesn’t mean it’s useful.

Bezos, according to reports at the time, was intimately involved in the design process for the Fire Phone. A Fast Company story on the development of the company’s biggest flop quoted a member of the team as saying of Bezos: “Even the very smallest decisions needed to go through him.”

It would be easy to imagine someone like Bezos, who has the kind of relentless focus that made Amazon the dominant force in e-commerce in the first place, being unable to let go of something he was so deeply invested in. But that isn’t what happened. 

In fact, Bezos’ response to the whole flop is the most telling thing of all. 

“You can’t, for one minute, feel bad about the Fire Phone. Promise me you won’t lose a minute of sleep,” Bezos reportedly told one of the top project leaders. 

There was a good reason. It turns out that Fire Phone led to one of Amazon’s biggest successes. An early prototype of the Fire Phone included a voice recognition feature that could play a song based on a user’s request. Eventually, Amazon would build a team with two hundred people to build a cloud-based voice assistant–Alexa. 

It doesn’t seem likely that the Fire Phone would ever beat the iPhone or even most of the Android devices from Samsung or Google. Alexa, on the other hand, is the dominant smart home assistant, even though it is the native option on any smartphone, unlike Google Assistant and Siri.

Amazon never made a Fire Phone 2. Instead, it killed it about as fast as any piece of technology I can remember. As a result, it ended up with something that has sold far more than 100 million devices.

That’s a pretty big success, not just because of the numbers, but because of how it reflects the thinking of a leader like Bezos. It reflects a willingness to learn from failure, and redirect your resources and energy–along with that learning–towards something that can succeed. 

It’s the opposite of how leaders too often confront failure. They continue to devote energy and resources to bad ideas that end up dragging down their team and their business. 

Instead, Bezos shows that there’s a better way to handle failure: pursue lots of ideas, with lots of energy, but at the same time be willing to quickly let go of the ones that don’t work. That’s how you turn a big failure, into a much bigger success. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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