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Could Your Mistake be the Next Big Thing?

This week I was reminded of one of my favorite books as a kid… “Mistakes that worked.” Yes, I realize that this is a pretty dorky favorite book, but Harry Potter wasn’t out yet and it was a nice break from those entrepreneurial babysitters.

“Mistakes that worked” shared the stories of inventions that were for the most part accidental but turned out to be great successes. Examples featured in the book include:

  • The popsicle – Invented by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905 who accidentally left powered soda, water and his stirring stick outside overnight. That night temperatures dropped unusually low and when he woke up, he found his mixture frozen solid. Rather than throwing it away, he continued to refine the idea. In 1923, he sold his first Popsicles at the beach and the rest is history.
  • The Frisbee – In 1938, Walter Morrison was hanging out on the beach tossing a 5¢ cake pan back and forth with his girlfriend (why they had a cake pan at the beach is another question for another time).  To his surprise, a man offered the couple 25¢ to buy the cake pan so he could play with it. Inadvertently, Morrison stumbled upon a business opportunity. He then developed the first version of the Frisbee to be sold at the beach.
  • Potato Chips – Okay, not so much a mistake as much as a battle between a chef and a customer. According to the story, a chef in Saratoga, NY was faced with a customer who kept sending back his fried potatoes since they weren’t thin and salty enough. After the customer sent the potatoes back a few times, a frustrated George Crum, the chef, decided to slice the potatoes as thinly as possible and fry them as much as he could and added a lot of salt. To his surprise, the customer loved the potatoes and he had unknowingly invented potato chips.

These are only some of the examples featured in the book, but they identify important lessons. Sometimes, if the conditions are right, walking away from what you’re working on can lead to something new and better than the original product, such as a tasty Popsicle.  Other times, products designated for one purpose can be used for something else, like a cake pan Frisbee. And finally, a relentless and frustrating consumer can drive you to innovate in ways that you had never imagined before.

To me, the overarching lesson of these examples is taking a minute to step back, assess the situation and embrace the unintended positive consequences of your actions.  Who knows, your next mistake could be the one that works…

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