I was reading about Van Halen's brown M&M® line item in their contract and being reminded of how brilliant it was. For your reference - wikipedia provides the following explanation:Van Halen had a notable effect on the modern rock music tour with their use...

I was reading about Van Halen's brown M&M® line item in their contract and being reminded of how brilliant it was. For your reference - wikipedia provides the following explanation:

Van Halen had a notable effect on the modern rock music tour with their use of the concert technical contract rider. They were one of the first bands to use contract riders to specify a "wish list", a practice now used throughout the music industry. As one of the first major bands with a traveling stage show, Van Halen had extensive requirements including power availability and stage construction details. The band's demands were not limited to technical issues; their now-infamous rider specified that a bowl of M&M candies, with all of the brown M&M's removed, was to be placed in their dressing room.

According to David Lee Roth, this was listed in the technical portion of the contract not because the band wanted to make capricious demands of the venue, but rather as a test of whether the promoter had actually read the contract, as it contained other requirements involving legitimate safety concerns.[50] On early tours, inadequate compliance by local organizers to the safety requirements of the rider had placed members of Van Halen's road crew in danger, sometimes life-threatening. Because of these incidents, the band developed the M&M's demand as a means of checking whether the venue was properly honoring all of the contract. Subsequently, if the bowl was missing, or if there were brown M&M's present, they had reason to suspect that the venue might not have honored legitimate technical and safety concerns within the contract. As a result, the band would be within their rights to inspect the technical side of the performance prior to going on stage.[51]

Many thought this ridiculous addition to their notoriously technical contract was an act of vanity. It was actually a canary in a coal mine for Van Halen, letting them know upon immediate arrival at the venue whether or not their contract had been carefully and diligently supervised. The thinking was, if they missed the brown M&M® item, chances were good they missed something else. It also gave the band a contractual reason to demand a full recheck of all technical issues prior to the concert starting. They didn't have to say, "Hmm, your electrical guy looks stoned; can you recheck the wattage?" They could simply say, "You messed up. Now we get to demand you go back and check everything or the show doesn't go on."

So, Van Halen figured out a way to determine if failures were likely to happen before they happened by implementing the brown M&M® clause. How can other companies set up their own canary in the coal mine situations? How can you ferret out failure before it hits you smack in the face?

Ironically, one of the teams with whom I am participating in the upcoming SXSW panel "We F*cked Up, Now What. Exploring Failure Together", Happy Cog, has a great canary set up. The Pre-Project Questionnaire.

This is a great solution because it allows you to spell out the rules of engagement prior to wasting time on a call or a meeting, where you may end up getting sucked into a project or relationship that is really a bad fit. It seems that once you start talking or having a meeting with someone, it becomes much more difficult to say "no" or walk away. Maybe that is just my experience.

The document that Happy Cog uses is on their site. If you want to start a dialogue with them, you must first fill out this questionnaire (or work the answers into your RFP). While they do provide a form for submitting your information to get a call back, it is impossible to miss that this company is in the business of building serious Websites with serious budgets and time frames. You can check it out here.

So, what does all of this have to do with the subtitle "Failure is the New Success"? Well, these things didn't come into being before failures had occurred. Van Halen obviously had suffered through a few concerts with underpowered amps and Happy Cog obviously suffered through a few long meetings or calls only to find out the client had no budget and no business taking up their time. Through these failures, they gained insight, put it into practice and became more successful.

Here's another example. I used to waste enormous amounts of time on the phone or writing proposals for projects or clients who were not good fits for Fastspot. Typically, it would boil down to budget—they had champagne taste on a beer budget and were hoping we were some sort of magical agency who could deliver champagne on the cheap. Perhaps, as a young start-up, you sometimes do have to deliver champagne on the cheap—or at least set out to deliver what you hope will be champagne with no real guarantees since you are a fledgling company. Today, after almost 10 years in business, we can guarantee the degree of quality we can deliver, but it comes with a price. You know where I am going with this—you get what you pay for.

When we were just starting, I was fearful of jumping right to budget. I didn't want to seem callous or money-oriented. What?!!! Why shouldn't I be money-oriented? After all, how am I supposed to run a company if I don't focus on money? These days, I discuss budget within the first five minutes of a conversation or inquire about it directly in an email. And guess what? 50% of the time, I find out they have no money, or very little, and we part ways with a "thanks for your interest and good luck". They appreciate that I was direct and specified the kind of budgets our process require. I appreciate saving time by getting to the real factors that will determine whether we will be able to work together or not. That is not something to be apologetic about. After 10 years I can say that. I wish I could have said it when I was one year in, but I believe I had to experience my own failures to really come out on the success side. My lesson is that you can't run a champagne business on beer pricing, so either charge for the quality or deliver a cheaper product. It's one of the main reasons we don't shy away from the type of presence we put forward on Fastspot's site - we think it needs to be clear you are buying very high quality services from our company, and design has a lot to do with telling that story.

While we can all leverage what we learn from other companies and put into practice things we think will help us, there is no substitute for the real thing. So, for every failure you experience, ask yourself this: How will this become my next success? Have some good examples of failures turned into successes? Do share!

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published March 8th 2010