I’m not a religious person, but I had a next to spiritual experience the other day when I watched the documentary General Magic.

It’s about “the most important startup that you’ve probably never heard of”. More than that though, it’s a story of failure and loss.

General Magic was a company on a mission of almost existential dimensions. The high priest was Marc Porat, a soft spoken thinker with great artistic sensibilities; every bit as charismatic as Steve Jobs, but with a very different personality.

Porat envisioned the smartphone almost two decades before the iPhone shipped. Here he is in an internal memo from 1990:

“A tiny computer, a phone, a very personal object . . . It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used… Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.”

As inspiring a visionary as Porat was, it was probably the reputation of his legendary co-founders Andy Herzfeldt and Bill Atkinson which turned General Magic into an absolutely unbelievable talent magnet.

*Everyone* wanted to work there and out of the lucky few who got accepted, many would become phenomenally successful in their later careers. People went on from General Magic to found eBay, become CTO for Barack Obama, invent the iPod, the Nest thermostat and the Android OS. And that’s not counting those who got top-tier jobs at one of the tech giants. It would be fair to say that in terms of being a breeding ground, General Magic was a runaway success.

From a technological point of view, its achievements were also spectacular. While other startups often build on one core innovation, General Magic pretty much invented *all* the key enabeling technologies that would eventually make the smartphone a reality.

Commercially however, it was a massive failure. When its much anticipated product hit the market in the summer of 1994, the demand simply wasn’t there yet. General Magic went from boom to bust.

Now all these years later, we see an aged Marc Porat looking back at his experience, saying: “When a wave crashes on the rocks, you don’t think of the wave as having failed, it just prepared the ground for the next wave.”

That’s beautifully put, but the words seem more like incantations than anything else. He badly wants it to be true, but has tears in his eyes when he explains he participate in the documentary so that his children from a first failed marriage might understand why he was such an absent father. He’s here in front of the camera to try exorcising the ghost of failure, but is aware on some level that: “We sometimes need closure on things that are not closable.”

Andy Hertzfeldt seems equally wistful as he slowly strolls through the empty isles of the museum of computer history, feeling old. The way he talks about the failure of General Magic, reminds me how the word can also be transitive, have agency of its own; that you can fail people. In Herzfeldt’s words:

“The worst thing was the shame that i had brought people along and that i couldn’t deliver for them.”

I loved this film for how it portrays failure as something very complex. There’s this notion among entrepreneurs that failure should be embraced as a catalyst for change. That’s sometimes true, but it can also obscure the sad fact that there are two types of failures. The type that sets the stage for later success, and the type that utterly defeats you.


Post Scriptum
About six month after writing this post, I fell in love with The Bear. Watching it while at the same time reading Rosalind William’s fantastic book Retooling, gave rise to this second text on the topic of ‘two types of failure’.