5 Startup Lessons from the General Magic Movie

Silicon Valley’s Most Important Failure

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Marc’s sketch of the future handheld device. Still from General Magic movie

Epic failures are inevitable when you are innovating but not many are as compelling or world changing as General Magic was.

General Magic was a company spun out of Apple almost thirty years ago. Led by Marc Porat who had a vision of what the future smartphone would look like, and alongside the Macintosh team’s Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson, the company was destined for great things. But it wasn’t to be.

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Andy Hertzfeld, Marc Porat and Bill Atkinson. Getty Images

With many of the original team as narrators in the film, we learn how Porat’s idea in 1989 — a handheld device with messaging, note-taking, games and emojis — was way ahead of its time. Despite the dogged determination to build the future of communication, and with an incredible group of designers and engineers at the helm, the end result was not enough. The market just wasn’t ready. After the product’s release, the sales never picked up, the company went into bankruptcy and Marc resigned.

Sarah Kerruish (one of the filmmakers alongside Matt Maude and Michael Stern) was hired in the early 90s to produce a video for General Magic and her incredible footage helps paint the picture of a company which lost its way yet left a legacy which lives on even today.

A story of vision, spirit, grit and ultimately, failure, General Magic movie tells the story of the “most important company to come out of Silicon Valley that nobody ever heard of” — a quote from board member John Sculley. But the story doesn’t end there — most of the key players including Marc, Tony Fadell (iPod, iPhone), Megan Smith (USCTO), Andy Rubin (Android) Kevin Lynch (Adobe, Dreamweaver, Apple Watch), Joanna Hoffman (Apple), Pierre Omidyar (eBay) and Andy Hertzfeld (Apple, Google) went on to greater success — thus securing General Magic’s place in tech history.

Here are some of my key takeaways from the film, as well as commentary from Tom Hershenson who worked at General Magic, and whom I caught up with late last year.

1. A Great Idea Is Not Enough

This is our early vision for the product. 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 jewellery brings. It will have a perceived value even when it is not being used. It should offer the comfort of a touchstone. The tactile satisfaction of a seashell. The enchantment of a crystal. Once you use it, you won’t be able to live without it. It’s just not another telephone. It must be something else.
Marc Porat

It’s about timing. Is the market ready for this? The most important person to consider throughout the creation process is the end customer. Who will buy this? How will they use it? How much will they pay for it?

General Magic’s mission statement as found in Wired, 1993:

We have a dream of improving the lives of many millions of people by means of small, intimate life support systems that people carry with them everywhere. These systems will help people to organize their lives, to communicate with other people, and to access information of all kinds. They will be simple to use, and come in a wide range of models to fit every budget, need, and taste. They will change the way people live and communicate.

Marc Porat’s vision was way ahead of its time and, whilst it had merit (we know from the iPhone’s success) — it was not enough to convince the buying public. So the lesson here is really to understand your audience and have them front and centre throughout the design and development stage.

But also, as a founder, have the ability to listen. Listen to your detractors, listen to your customers, listen to the market. And listen to those who don’t agree with you because they could be your best teachers.

There was no questioning of ‘could I be wrong?’ None. Because that’s what you need to break out of earth’s gravity. You need an enormous amount of momentum and that momentum comes from suppressing introspection about the possibility of failure.
Marc Porat

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Sony Magic Link

2. Don’t Believe the Hype

It’s tempting as a new company to believe your own hype like General Magic did but are articles and flattering coverage of a product which hasn’t shipped yet really going to move you forward? Focus on getting a finished product, that people want, out into the universe. It might not be perfect but get it out there as soon as you can and see what people think. Get feedback, refine and, most importantly, don’t get distracted by the things that don’t matter.

We were so distracted by all the articles, that we started to believe our own tale. You know that we’re gonna conquer the world, but yet we hadn’t finished. We were not paying attention to the other external trends that were happening around us, because we were aiming so far out in the future. It was like the current context around us really wasn’t considered that relevant, because we were aiming too far out. But boy was that relevant.

3. Your Team Is Your Most Important Asset

One thing no one can doubt is Marc, Bill and Andy managed to assemble an incredible team — most of whom went on to lead, found and invent the future must-have technology.

With an accomplished team, one can learn, thrive and achieve mastery. You want your team to have a natural leader but be filled with fellow experts who are bought into the mission and are given the space to thrive.

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Some of the General Magic team and their positions post leaving

I caught up with Tom “Hersh” Hershenson (Media Relations Liaison at General Magic) who had this to say about his time at General Magic:

I have yet to work somewhere that came close to that cohesiveness, and yet to find a place that had such grand and, to my mind, honorable ambitions (no matter how naive we were about the dark side of technology). It was a special place and a — forgive me — magical time.

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Megan Smith, General Magic

4. Be United In Your Mission

It’s quite obvious from the film how united the team at General Magic was — how they worked long hours for months on end with a united mission they share with Marc. “We were united by that vision. That drive” Tom told me. He also used this story to illustrate his point.

One day I was acting as the handler for a TV crew from Japan. We let them roam the building freely and interview anyone they wanted. Every person that they filmed, the interviewer always asked, in his less-than-perfect English, “To what extent you work at General Magic for prospect to become super-rich?” Literally every person, he asked them that.

As a flack, those are “Yikes!” moment, because you just know someone’s going to provide a sound bite that’s going to make the place look horrible, like we’re all just in it for the money. But at General Magic, I didn’t have to worry for a moment.

To a person, my fellow “Magicians” (as we earnestly but ridiculously called ourselves) answered by talking about their passion for helping to achieve the vision of the company of a more connected world, where people would be able to communicate anytime, to record the information they needed to help run their lives, and to access goods and services and information, anytime, anywhere. We were certain that such a world was coming and we were beyond excited to help birth it.

So I have to say that other than it imploding, it was such a fun and magical experience. An astounding group of talent, all in one small place — and united — and this is what distinguished it, in my view — by a shared sense that we were truly going to change the world in a profound and good way.

5. Failure Is Not The End

The film begins with Tom’s words:

The reason you should care about the story of General Magic is that it involves something fundamental and that is: Failure isn’t the end, failure is actually the beginning… Did it fail? I mean, the company itself failed. The ideas didn’t fail. The people who worked there didn’t fail. So was it a failure?”

Failure isn’t the end. Failure is actually the beginning.

It can break you but also make you strong. Tony Fadell talked to Tim Ferris about exactly this on his podcast recently — the episode is here [26:28]. Tony explains how the heart breaking failure of General Magic led him to reboot his life which, despite being extremely painful at the time, had a hugely positive and lifelong impact on his health and wellbeing.

So what does General Magic teach us? Above all, it shows us that failure is our most important teacher. That in failing, we develop our grit and perseverance. We learn what we are capable of, and equally, what we are not. But most of all, it teaches us the lessons of life.

Some of which will last a lifetime.

Have you seen the film? What were your favourite lessons from the movie? Feel free to comment below or find me on Twitter to further the discussion.

Written by

Writer. Founder. Interviewed 300+ founders and innovators and I’m sharing their stories here. 📚 Author x 2.

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