Columbus Community and Business Leaders Share Their 'Best Mistakes'

Dave Ghose
Watershed Distillery's Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo

Failure is a blessing—or at least it can be. While no one likes to miss a job opportunity, lose a key client or shut down a struggling enterprise, valuable lessons can be gleaned from these experiences. A little hard-earned knowledge and humility can go a long way in life and business—as long as you're willing to learn from your inevitable mistakes and failures, as so many successful people have demonstrated throughout history, including Steve Jobs (fired from Apple), Michael Jordan (cut from his high school varsity basketball team) and Abraham Lincoln (two failed U.S. Senate campaigns).

With all that in mind,Columbus CEO has asked over the past couple of years more than a dozen of central Ohio's top business and community leaders to share their “best mistakes.” They've told us about screwy business plans, the benefits of “divine ignorance,” questionable career decisions and an exploding handheld video game, among other things. We also gave them a lot of leeway, allowing them to define what constitutes a best mistake however they see fit, whether that be as a misguided perception, a true failure or a perceived error that turned into a victory. Regardless, we think the ongoing online video series—which started in January 2017 withColumbus Mayor Andy Ginther—shines a light on the upside of loss and disappointment, and hopefully provides inspiration for others on how to fail the right way.

Here are a few “best mistakes” from the series.

Frederic Bertley: Causing an Explosion

When the COSI CEO was about nine years old, he came up with a makeshift power source for his Coleco Head to Head Football video game. Since he couldn't afford to replace the device's batteries, he cut a cable from an old lamp, attached it to the back of the handheld game and plugged the chord into a wall socket. “I had the best 10 seconds of my life,” Bertley recalls. “By the 11th second, the game exploded.”

The experience was an aha moment for Bertley. “I realized that this thing called electricity was way more complicated than just plugging something in an outlet or flicking a switch, but that there was something magical, almost mystical-like happening behind the walls, and I wanted to learn about that. And that's what got me hooked on science.”

Tanny Crane: Abandoning Chicago

Some 30 years ago, Crane worried she might be making a big mistake by leaving Chicago to return to her hometown of Columbus and work for her family business. Her husband had family in Chicago, and they both had good jobs. “It was a big risk on my part because here my husband was coming to a town he didn't know,” Crane says. “It was our company, and he was joining our company as well, so I felt a pretty large burden on my shoulders.” Her fears were unfounded, as they've built successful lives in Columbus, and Crane followed in the footsteps of her father, Robert, to become the CEO of the Crane Group. “It was the best risk we've ever taken,” she says.

Alex Bandar: Skipping a Plan

The Idea Foundry is a successful operation these days—one of the world's largest makerspaces and a critical part of the Franklinton renaissance. But when Alex Bandar founded the Idea Foundry about a decade ago, he didn't even bother to put together a business plan. “I'm going to steal Nancy Kramer's phrase of ‘divine ignorance,' because I think if I had gone through that exercise, I would have realized what a foolish endeavor it would be to buy a bunch of tools, get a big warehouse and encourage people to make their stuff because it's a fun culture. … So my best mistake was not doing the proper thing and doing a business plan.”

Carla Williams-Scott: Staying Put

Earlier in her career, shortly after graduating from Ohio State University, Williams-Scott spent 12 years at the United Way of Central Ohio. “All my friends were changing jobs, and I'm thinking maybe I should be changing jobs, too,” she recalls. But her commitment to the United Way proved to be critical in her career growth, instead of a hindrance, and put her on the path toward the job she holds now as the director of the Columbus Department of Neighborhoods. “I had the opportunity to have three or four different positions at the organization, really got to learn fundraising and nonprofit work, the services we provide to residents in our community,” she says.

Skip Prichard: Focusing on the Job

The OCLC chief executive says some of his biggest mistakes occurred when he ignored the advice of the late entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn, who urged business people to “work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” Says Prichard: “If you work harder on yourself, you change who you are. You change what you're bringing to the job. You change your skills not just for that immediate period but for a long time to come. And so it's important that you work on you.”

Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo: Losing a House

The Watershed Distillery co-founders' business partnership began with a couple of bad ideas. They formed a company called “Lego Properties,” with the idea of operating a Hocking Hills rental property they hoped to call “Golden Bear Lodge”—names that might not have gone over well with Upper Arlington's favorite golfer and the world's largest toy building blocks company. “So we were probably going to get two cease-and-desists from two really large companies,” Rigo says.

Before that could happen, however, the duo lost out on their first potential Hocking Hills property. As a result, they pursued another idea—starting a distillery. “We took the money that we were going to invest in this house, and we took it and traveled all over the country, learned about how to start a distillery and how to make spirits,” Rigo says. Adds Lehman: “If we got that house, we would own some property, and there'd be no Watershed gin.”

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Dave Ghose is the editor.