A story about the failure that created the future


By Nick Farnhill, founder and managing partner

September 27, 2018 | 5 min read

Ambition drives us forward. A trite comment perhaps, but I’ve an ambition to make a film one day and if I had the opportunity this is the film I’d make. Next Tuesday with the help of our friends at Digital Cinema Media (DCM), we present the first UK private screening of 'General Magic'. A feature documentary film created by directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, it has been voted one of the top ten films of Tribeca 2018 by Time Out Magazine. It’s a film about how great vision and ambition changed the world as we now know it.

generation magic

General Magic to be screened in London

From the smartphones that sit in our pockets to an array of technologies we take for granted today, many of the ideas that now dominate the tech industry and our day-to-day lives were born in 1989 at a Silicon Valley start-up most of us have never heard of – General Magic.

The first smartphones, social media, e-commerce, touchscreen and even the beloved emojis all had their origins at General Magic. This was before the internet, before 4G, before Google and when only a handful of people had mobile phones.

This however isn’t a movie about tech. It’s a study of what it really takes to bring an idea to life and how crippling failure can be when things don’t work out as people dream. Forbes magazine described General Magic as “the most important dead company in Silicon Valley”. It charts a business and team, charmingly known as the Magicians, who were responsible for extraordinary creativity and remarkable breakthroughs, but also fierce competition, hubris and heart-breaking betrayal.

While some of those involved never recovered from the company’s downfall and bankruptcy, others went on to soar. This film challenges the Valley dogma that everyone must fail in order to succeed; how failure is a badge of honour and a rite of passage that all entrepreneurs must endure. This glorified image of the Steve Job-sian genius bouncing back is largely absent from the script. Instead, failure is portrayed as acutely painful, world crushing and life changing and as palpable as a grief that some people simply don't recover from.

An approach to dealing with failure is storytelling, which is perhaps why many of the magicians chose to take part in this film. Through sharing their stories, we begin to appreciate and understand the mistakes they made and how these impacted upon their future decisions. It’s incredibly powerful to hear an individual share a time when they suffered a crucible-type failure that became a stepping stone in their career – as many in this film have had.

Not quite of the same scale(!) but watching the film took me back to the shock crash of Deepend – an agency myself and many others poured huge amounts of passion and creative energy in to. In 2001, it exploded in spectacular fashion and personally I'd say it took several years to truly move on from. Recounting the stories of Deepender’s and seeing where they all are today has always been a source of pride and there’s still much of Deepend present in POKE today, 17 years later. A belief in human centred design, connected ideas, strong team cultures and being tech optimistic all began in the formative days of Deepend, specifically in a Fulham basement.

How then can you prepare for failure? When taking on anything new, whatever this may be, the fear of failure is ever present. The author JK Rowling talks about failure being rock-bottom but also a foundation rather than a conclusion. The consequence of a psychological rock-bottom is that it becomes difficult to recognise new opportunities. In defeat, we don’t sense when another door may be opening up. The situation is seen as definitive and conclusive. In reality, that’s not really where it ends. The act of failing has an unintended side-effect: liberation. When there is nothing more to lose, this foundation limits spiralling further downward.

For many of the Magicians this is what happened. The lessons learned at General Magic were instrumental in the creation of the iPod, iPhone, Android, eBay, even in the corridors of President Obama’s White House. And although General Magic died, the concepts and the people who worked there went on to change how the world connects today.

A former magician, Amy Lindberg, now at Docker, describes General Magic as being a supernova. It’s the star that exploded and created so much of what we use today. This is the happy ending to the film and the results of people who have taken a long, hard look at themselves and what they have done. Failure is an inevitable part of life. It can stop us from aspiring and achieving. Dealing with it is a skill, and preparing for failure will go a long way.

I urge you to seek this film out. Whether you’re a tech geek, an entrepreneur, a futurist or simply someone who enjoys a good story. This is a poignant picture of bringing a dream to life.

Nick Farnhill is the chief executive officer of Publicis London and the co-founder of Poke.


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