We all (hopefully) learn from our mistakes. Entrepreneurs, especially, are bound to make them -- and it's those early stumbles that can make (or break) them.
Of course, it's always better to learn from other people's mistakes. The business world is full of blunders, and watching them can be great sport. As 2011 drew to a close, we saw obituaries for ill-conceived gadgets like the TouchPad, HP's attempted iPad killer. And who can forget Qwikster, Netflix's brief, doomed spinoff DVD service? Looking ahead to the coming year, here's our prediction -- products will flop, mergers will fail and ad campaigns will fizzle. We've seen it all before.
With that in mind, we decided to take a look at some of the worst product launches ever -- and pull out the lessons that entrepreneurs of all kinds can learn.
1) The Hula Burger
The idea: Back in the 1960s, McDonald's owner Ray Kroc recognized he wasn't selling as many burgers on Fridays during Lent. It's part of McDonald's lore that the Filet-O-Fish was created as something Catholics could eat, but what's often forgotten is Kroc's other idea: the Hula Burger. It was a slice of pineapple between two slices of cheese on a bun. While the Filet-O-Fish is with us to this day, good luck trying to find a Hula Burger.
The lesson: Don't trick your customers. Until the end of his days, Kroc talked about the merits of the Hula Burger, and while it may have been delicious, even he admitted in his memoir that perhaps it should have been called something else -- say, the Hula Sandwich? Customers, Kroc reported in his memoir, would say, "I love the hula, but where's the burger?"
2) Celery Jell-O
The idea: Back in the 1960s, someone decided the world was clamoring for celery-flavored Jell-O. Actually, it was part of a line of Jell-O flavors for salads. Apparently, you'd eat the Jell-O on your salad -- not only could you get celery Jell-O, but also an Italian Salad flavor, Mixed Vegetable Jell-O and Seasoned Tomato. Yum.
The lesson: Know your customers. There was no harm done in giving it a shot, but the misfire might have killed a smaller, less durable company. Jell-O may be universal, but it's primarily beloved by children and families, and with other flavors available like cherry and grape, what kid in his right mind is going to clamor for flavors like Mixed Vegetable and Celery?
3) Windows Vista
The idea: Vista was designed to replace Windows XP and, of course, make scads of money for Microsoft -- and it did. But the operating system was clunky and full of bugs and was greeted almost immediately with negative buzz. Vista was released on January 30, 2007, but by April, Microsoft essentially waved the white flag, allowing Dell to keep offering XP on new computers. Meanwhile, not coincidentally, Microsoft sped up the development of its next, much more well-received, offering: Windows 7.
The lesson: Customers will buy your product based on your reputation, but they won't love it solely because of it. Quality counts.
4) Gerber Singles
The idea: Gerber had conquered the baby market. Next, it wanted to go after the parents. So in 1974, it came out with these meals in a jar, aimed at college students and single adults living alone. But with the name Gerber attached to these jars, consumers felt they were being asked to essentially buy baby food packaged for grownups.
The lesson: Sometimes your brand is so successful, you're stereotyped and locked into a certain persona. Hey, there are worse fates.
5) Clairol's "Touch of Yogurt" shampoo
The idea: Yogurt has a lot of vitamins and minerals, and yogurt-based shampoos are now actually on the market. However, when this came out in 1979, it thrived in the test marketing phase, but actual consumers weren't so interested in putting yogurt on their scalp.
The lesson: If you're going to challenge a conception that, say, yogurt is a food and not something you put in your hair, you need to invest a lot into educating the public first.
6) Pepsi A.M.
The idea: In the fall of 1989, Pepsi evidently felt it could boost its sales if it served up a reason for drinking soda in the morning. At the time, it was estimated that sodas were only consumed at breakfast in 2 percent of the households across the United States. Pepsi A.M. would try to improve upon that. The breakfast soda would have 28 percent more caffeine per ounce than a regular Pepsi, but it would be 77 percent less per ounce than coffee or tea. In any case, by August 1990, Pepsi began quietly killing this beverage.
The lesson: It's awfully difficult to change a nation's habits and lifestyle.
7) Spray-on condoms
The idea: The reason for creating spray-on condoms is sound. They were invented by German entrepreneur Jan Vinzenz Krause of the Institute for Condom Consultancy. Typical condoms can be difficult to put on. In this case, the male consumer was expected to spray paint on a fast-drying latex liquid. But it took a few minutes for the latex to dry, dampening the moment, and it cost twice as much as a traditional condom. The product never quite made it out of the testing phase.
The lesson: As with Pepsi A.M., it's awfully difficult to change a nation's habits and lifestyle, and if sex is involved, all bets are off.