Mike Cassidy takes readers' submissions for the worst business decisions of all time: the Big Three, Xerox PARC, Webvan, and Time Warner and AOL.
I hardly know where to start.
Business brains have made so many bad decisions over the years that it’s a wonder there are any going concerns left on the planet. When I wrote earlier that Jerry Yang’s decision to walk away from Microsoft and $44.6 billion of Bill Gates’ hard-earned money was the worst business decision ever, I knew there was room for dissent.
After all, worst ever? Ever is a long time. And it’s not like Yang and Co. scotching the Microsoft deal has led to the collapse of Yahoo. Yet.
So, I asked you for nominations for the business world’s biggest “D’oh!” moments, and you presented me with an embarrassment of riches. OK, an embarrassment of embarrassment.
Most Read Business Stories
- 6 Dr. Seuss books won't be published for racist images
- Frontier cancels flight, citing maskless passengers
- Biden vows enough vaccine for all US adults by end of May
- Amazon sued by Black cloud-computing manager over alleged racial discrimination and sexual harassment
- The penthouse atop Smith Tower is on the rental market for the first time
Sure, it’s easy in hindsight to pick out the moves that never should have been. In fact, reader Martin Bell, of Santa Clara, Calif., raises an interesting question: “Do we learn from the mistakes of others or just get a nice sense of smugness?”
Uh, basically, we just get a nice sense of smugness. So let’s get started!
You came up with more bone-headed business moves than I can possibly get to. But a few that got multiple mentions deserve special recognition.
Leading the readers’ poll were the Big Three automakers, not for any one bad decision but for a bucketful. Jerry Bolger, of Milpitas, Calif., points to GM killing the EV1 electric car, which gave the company time to work on humongous gas-guzzling SUVs and a bunch of cars nobody wanted to buy.
Which gets to Oakland resident Bennett Hall’s wonderment at the Big Three CEOs flying to Washington, D.C., on private jets to ask Congress whether it could spare $25 billion or so.
I’m thinking driving to D.C. would have shown some faith in their product. Road trip! Oh, and having some plan as to what they’d actually do with the $25 billion might have helped, too.
Close behind the Big Three was Xerox PARC essentially giving away the entire future of personal computing. PARC told Apple’s Steve Jobs in 1979 to help himself to its invention of the graphical user interface and the mouse — which he quickly did.
“Steve took it all,” writes Michael Rosenblatt, of San Jose, “marketed it and made billions.”
No truth to the rumor that Jobs also walked away with a couple of pens and a pocketful of paper clips.
The dot-com bust provided enough stupid moves to fill a year of columns, but one emerged as a favorite: Webvan. Remember Webvan, the grocery-delivery company that didn’t own a grocery store?
“How could anyone think this had a chance,” writes Terry Erisman, “without tens of billions of dollars for capital investment and advertising to overcome the huge lead enjoyed by Safeway, Lucky, Kroger, etc.?”
How could they think it? Um, because in the New Economy the old rules no longer applied? Oh, wait. Yes they did.
Ed Stepans, of Albany, Calif., and others vote for the 2000 hookup between Time Warner and AOL.
“What were those people on?” asks Stepans. “Even an ordinary guy like me on the street (OK, with a bit of tech understanding) could see that AOL was a hopelessly outmoded business model with almost no chance of turning itself around.”
Hey, it’s not like they didn’t try to make money. Remember when it was virtually impossible to cancel your AOL subscription? It was like dealing with the stalker half of a bad breakup. A number of state attorneys general ultimately helped AOL with the concept of letting go.
Which is what I must do, though it’s hard. So many mistakes. So little time.
Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist
at the San Jose Mercury News.