Best mistakes I've made: Sam Shosanya, Paper Plus

Best mistakes I've made: Sam Shosanya, Paper Plus
Idealog has partnered with Callaghan Innovation to take a look the nature of failure in business – the good, the bad and the unintentionally educational. Sam Shosanya, chief executive of Paper Plus, shares a teachable moment from early in his career.

After working as an accountant, Sam Shosanya switched careers during the early 2000s and became a buyer for the supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s. He was responsible for buying in the cereals category and was also in charge of a team of buyers. At the time, Sainsbury’s was locked in fierce competition against Tesco. It was seeking opportunities to demonstrate innovation, thought leadership and general superiority over its competitors.

The cereal company Kellogg’s was also very focused on innovation at the time. It had recently released a successful cereal bar product and was keen to see if it could spread further outside the cereal aisle. So, when Kellogg’s approached Shosanya with a new waffle-like savoury snack, he was open to the experiment. He decided to put the snack in the cereal aisle alongside existing Kellogg’s products like cornflakes and Coco Pops because of the high foot traffic.

However, consumers just weren’t ready for a savoury Kellogg’s snack. “It failed miserably,” Shosanya says. “Not only did it fail in our business, it failed everywhere they tried it.”

His placement strategy meant Sainsbury’s took a big hit. Shosanya says he had become caught up in Kellogg’s enthusiasm: “They had spent a lot of time and a lot of money developing this product and everyone was so bullish.”

The product’s failure took Shosanya’s team by surprise and they had no planned response ready. “We panicked,” he says. “For a period of time, we did nothing, because doing nothing was easier than doing something, then we had a series of hare-brained ideas.”

Pressure from senior management soon followed, which prompted Shosanya’s team to make a quick, rash move instead of carefully managing the product’s exit. In the end, the answer came from a group of specialists who worked in parallel importing: Kellogg’s snack product was moved to a central location within the Sainsbury’s network and then picked up by a third party who took it offshore.

The key lesson from his mistake, Shosanya says, is that it’s important to consider the alternatives to each action. ‘Plan B’ needs to be in place, and to be as effective as ‘Plan A’.

The mistake was compounded by the team which was working to solve it. Sometimes it’s important to remove yourself from a problem to create space around it, Shosanya says: “Our thinking was limited and we were too close to the problem.”

“No-one ended up dead. As long as you learn from it, and you’re not in the business of repeating those errors, it ends up okay in the end.”

There was a silver lining, however – Shosanya’s personal worst-case scenario had come and gone, and he had survived. The space vacated by Kellogg’s savoury snacks even allowed him to trial a new display solution.

“No-one ended up dead,” Shosanya says. “As long as you learn from it, and you’re not in the business of repeating those errors, it ends up okay in the end.”

This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 743 April / May 2016
If the above has got you in the mood to answer some questions of your own, go here to take the Idealog/Callaghan Innovation survey on Kiwi attitudes to entrepreneurial failure (five minutes, promise) and go in the draw to win one of two groovy thousand dollar watches from Tissot