The Successes and Failures of Startups That Were Ahead of Their Time

Taking the plunge to start your own business can be an exciting and stressful experience. Finding a market need, a comprehensive team, funding, and office space are all part of the to-do list before you’re ready to hit the ground running. But how do you know when the timing is right for your company or your product? For one, keeping an eye on your current competition can help you gauge how your brand will perform. Here are four companies that either succeeded or failed by entering the market before their time.



After years of jogging around Central Park with a Walkman, author and journalist Don Katz had dreams of creating a portable library the size of a cassette player. The longtime writer imagined that the ultimate convenience would be having access to any book at any time while on the go. Before either iBooks or the iPod were introduced, Audible commercialized the first portable digital audio player in 1997. In 2003, two years after the iPod made its debut, Audible inked a deal with Apple to become an exclusive audio book provider in Apple’s iTunes store.

Success: The company saw major success in the following years by launching Audible Air in 2005, which sold audio books, radio and TV programs as well as audio versions of magazines and newspapers. This made it possible to download audio files directly to a smartphone. Audible’s major feat came in 2008 when it signed off on a lucrative deal with Amazon, which bought the company for $300 million.


Microsoft’s SPOT Smartwatch

When the Microsoft SPOT Smartwatch dropped in 2004, it had everything going for it. The small gadget used FM radio signals to bring news, weather, and other information displayed on a relatively small pixel screen. At the time, this  gadget sparked a lot of interest in the market, but there were many issues plaguing the smartwatch’s recipe for success. Although in concept, the smartwatch seemed practical, the gadget ran into many issues that rendered it useless for many of its customers. For one thing, the SPOT smart watch ran on its own data network, which meant that many users were unable to connect their other wireless devices to the watch. Despite SPOT’s promising features, users were also unable to communicate through the watch. So although you could read your emails and messages, you were unable to reply back.

Failure: Spot’s use of FM stood no chance against the cellular broadband that began to pick up steam around the same time. With the rapid progress and more durable functionality of smartphone devices, Microsoft pulled SPOT from the market in 2008.



When Netflix founder Reed Hastings racked up over $40 in fees after forgetting to return a rented VHS cassette tape, he was inspired to start a movie subscription sharing platform, which we know today as Netflix. Software engineers Hastings and business partner Marc Rudolf offered flat-fee unlimited rentals without due dates, shipping or handling fees, per-title rental fees, or late fees.

Success: Neflix capitalized on the rapid decline of DVD players in US households by providing customers with a vast catalog of movies and recommendations.In 2007, Netflix began to offer streaming services in preparation for the digital age that would eventually obliterate DVDs and BluRays. Subscripership shot up and three years later the service had amassed over 20 million subscribers. By 2013, Netflix moved into original programming with the wildly popular series House of Cards. The first season garnered eight Emmy nominations, while the second season went on to earn 13 Emmy nominations. Today, Netflix has more than 50 million subscribers.



Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (VR)

Before VR headsets became popular as we know them today, in 1995 Nintendo introduced a new gaming console to its collection called Virtual Boy. The new system at the time consisted of a standing head-mounted VR set with a red monochrome 3D screen. Upon release Nintendo promised that Virtual Boy would totally immerse players into their own “private universe.” Nintendo had set the bar high after the release of its home video game console Nintendo Entertainment System, but Virtual Boy literally sold itself short.

Failure: Virtual Boy turned out to be far from the mega hit Nintendo was expecting, selling just 770,000 units worldwide and 140,000 units in Japan.  The NES had sold 61.9 Million units while the Game Boy sold 40 million. Critics jabbed the console for its supposed lack of mobility, and it was said to cause headaches among users. Nintendo recalled the gaming system in March 1996, just seven months after its release.