Why the real innovation awards celebrate failure and determination

No one sets out in business aiming to fail. But failure can actually be an important stepping stone on the road to true, lasting success.

It’s just like the movies, reckons the creator of the Real Innovation Awards, launched by the London Business School in 2016. Professor Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, wanted to recognise all the ups and downs of innovation. This isn’t about simply handing trophies to businesses that have got it right. Instead, the awards recognise the moments when innovation has gone slightly, or even extremely, wrong—and when companies have had to completely start over.

“In movies, the typical story arc is someone has to overcome struggles and adversity before they succeed,” says Professor Birkinshaw. “It’s the same in innovation. It becomes a badge of honour to say you’ve struggled through adversity and come good.”

And like the best movies, the awards ceremony, held each November, has the audience rooting and cheering for the underdogs—the people and teams who have battled against the odds on their journey to victory.

“You have to go completely all-in”

For Professor Birkinshaw, there was an obvious gap for something that recognised the real and “messy” business of innovation.

“I realised most awards were fairly standard things that acknowledged most successful companies without thinking about how they got there and what success really means in the world of innovation,” he says.

“It’s serendipitous and it’s messy. Sometimes, the people who make the money aren’t the ones who came up with the idea. Facebook didn’t invent social networking, for example.”

That’s why there’s an award called Best Beats First, which was won by food delivery service Deliveroo at the inaugural awards, before the company became a household name. Its founder, William Shu, said after winning that being “agile and aggressive” were key to Deliveroo’s success.

“You have to go completely all-in. That’s the only way it can work,” Shu added.

Wine app Vivino won the same award in 2017, praised for creating a product that really thought about a customer need: to be able to make a good decision when buying wine. Launched by Heini Zachariassen in 2010, the app now has around 30 million users.

“Today, you can go into a book store and choose from a limited selection. Or you can go online and get endless choice, ratings and reviews, so you’re in a better position to decide whether or not to buy a particular book,” Zachariassen told the London Business School. “That’s what we’re doing with wine. We’re using data to understand which wines you like and to personalise your shopping experience.”

From losers to winners

Failure is a founding principle of the awards, which recognises those who are able to move on from their mistakes—using them as building blocks to success. Ritesh Agarwal, who won the If At First You Don’t Succeed Award in 2017, originally launched OYO as a listings platform for budget accommodation, but switched course when he discovered a greater demand for bespoke guest experiences.

For Professor Birkinshaw, experiencing, handling and overcoming mistakes and failures are often crucial elements of innovation.

“Failure makes for better decisions and business people,” he says. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t want to accept failure. To have tried and failed in starting a business is often seen as a positive now. It makes you more employable.”

Trend spotters

The Harnessing the Winds of Change award receives the most applications each year, with more than 150 innovators vying for the trophy. It’s all about predicting, or reacting quickly to, trends and harnessing their business potential. Fever-Tree founders Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow won that category in 2017, for shaking up the world of drinks mixers and making the gin trend their own.

Sometimes, though, businesses need to rip it up and start again. The Masters of Reinvention award is reserved for those that have cannibalised their existing, not-so-successful business to achieve success. WOG, a Ukraine-based oil trading business that reinvented itself with a retail focus, won the title in 2018. The judges loved how the company, which suffered during a 2014-15 recession, was able to create a fresh brand, becoming a one-stop-shop for fuel, food and coffee.

Accidental heroes

There’s no statistic for the number of business ideas born over a few beers, but we’re guessing it would probably be pretty high.

That was certainly how Ed Poland and Will Swannell came up with their idea for Hire Space, a venue-booking website. Down the pub, the friends chatted about how communities hit by the 2008 recession could raise funds by renting out schools and community centres. They launched the business in 2013, and now have 5,000 events spaces on their books.

It’s such “accidental” innovation that the Alexander Fleming Serendipity award recognises. And it’s these true-life stories—with all their messy twists and turns—that the awards were created to celebrate.

Matt Farrelly
Matt is our Head of Zipcar for Business and spends a lot of his time thinking about how we can deliver a better future, of more sustainable business transport in our cities. The rest of the time he's likely to be found either with his head in a book, playing tennis or continuing his attempt to break the world record for weekend Netflix binges.

Date published: 29 March 2019

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