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I recently had a discussion with John Rossman, former Amazon executive most known for launching and scaling Amazon Marketplace and keynote speaker in the upcoming FPSA Annual Conference in Tucson. In his presentation John will be highlighting some of the guiding principles that guide innovation at Amazon and illustrate how suppliers to the food industry can apply them to their businesses. This discussion was quite eye opening for me as I had trouble seeing our member companies, great equipment manufacturers (mostly), seeing themselves as “digital” companies such as Amazon. John explained to me that in this instance, digital is more of a mindset to continue innovating in a never-ending effort to give our clients what they need in the simplest process possible for them.

While I won’t share all of the lessons ahead of John’s presentation on March 9th, there are two that I find particularly important.

First, John points out that the “journey” to success in innovation is neither a short nor straight line. Amazon didn’t get to its current position without more than a few failures along the way. The Fire Phone, Amazon Destinations, and Amazon Local are just a few examples of new products they launched which did not work out as hoped. Eventually, all three of these projects were shut down. However, John stresses that just because these products were cancelled, does not mean the story ends there. No, lessons were learned and incorporated into other projects. In fact, Amazon employees and management had been encouraged to take these chances, knowing that some new ideas will be successful and make up for those that aren’t.

In preparing for this entry, I looked online for more info about this which brings me to the second point I’d like to share – Build a Failure-Tolerant Culture. I found a 2018 article from Inc. Magazine that captures some still relevant lessons about Amazon. Among them, I found the following particularly telling.

This seems counterintuitive, but to succeed you must fail many times. Amazon embraces risk in its efforts to discover what customers want next. Bezos views experiments as important but notes any experiment can fail. With Bezos at the helm, Amazon has not shied away from experimenting and recognizes that a couple of successful experiments can pay for the other dozen that don't pan out. Giving employees time and permission to experiment can help a company stay innovative, but you have to start by eliminating the fear of failure. Like Amazon, you need to celebrate failures as a necessary component of success–just make sure you learn and move on from them.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about risk takers. In fact, I have a friend who tells me that he learned in graduate school that he will have to fail in business eight times before one of his businesses takes off. He shares that with me each time one of his new ventures goes belly up as in his mind, he is one more failure closer to success. I’m not sure where he got that idea from, especially when you read that Colonel Sanders was rejected 1,009 times before finally getting KFC off the ground. Of course, in these examples, I am radically simplifying their situation. Obviously, they were open to taking risks. Obviously, they had good ideas that they believed in. What I’m leaving out are the many steps they took and the course corrections that went into the winding path for a great idea to come to fruition.

For those details, at least with regards to Amazon, you need to come see John speak at the Conference. It’s not too late. Join us at the Conference to network with successful peers and learn from John Rossman with the goal of transforming your business into the “digital” success you know it can be!

Andy Drennan, FPSA SVP