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Meet the founder of the Failure Museum, an exclusive collection of swag from companies that went bust

Madeline Renbarger   

Meet the founder of the Failure Museum, an exclusive collection of swag from companies that went bust
  • Norwest partner Sean Jacobsohn started collecting objects from failed businesses a year ago.
  • Since then, he's collected more than 500 items that sit in glass display cases in his office.

Sean Jacobsohn fashions himself as something of a "scholar of failure."

By day, the Bay Area venture capitalist at Norwest Venture Partners helps startup founders realize visions for their companies and weather the every day stresses of company building, focusing on early-to-growth-stage enterprise SaaS startups.

But in his free time, Jacobsohn collects artifacts from times when those visions didn't exactly pan out.

A longtime sports fan and collector, he's always gotten a kick out of finding rare items related to his favorite teams. But in November of last year, he attended a Golden State Warriors game where the facilities managers started handing out bobbleheads of player Jordan Poole that were sponsored by the then actively collapsing FTX.

"I thought, this is a collector's item, how cool is this! " Jacobsohn told Business Insider.

That freebie became the first addition to Jacobsohn's now extensive archive of over 500 items from failed companies, product launches, toy lines, and sports teams, which he keeps in rows of glass display cases in his office. "I'm surrounded with my museum — I need to find more space," he joked.

Dubbed the Failure Museum, he runs a website that details all of the physical items in his collection like the puppet mascot (he has 3) and the discontinued Mattel "Allan" doll, made famous in the Barbie movie this summer.

Some of the items can just be products that flopped, such as Harley Davidson's ill-fated foray into cologne.

But some can be one-of-a-kind memorabilia that represent whole companies that failed. One of his most prized items is an unopened, branded-bottle of champagne from early grocery-delivery startup Webvan's 1999 IPO celebration. The startup went on to lose millions and filed for bankruptcy in late 2001. "That might have been the only one not opened, and I own it!" he said.

Given his day job as a venture capitalist, about one third of his collection skews towards tech and startups, he said. Highlights include a Theranos lab coat, Elizabeth Holmes' official business card, a Juicero juicer, and a Bird "Birdie" scooter, the company's child-sized, kick-powered scooter. To make it into the museum, the failure has to be a physical item — no NFTs allowed, Jacobsohn said. He sources the largest chunk of his items through solicited donations, but he also purchases some on eBay, he said.

Like the FTX-sponsored bobblehead, many of his startup collectibles relate to the biggest tech news stories of the day. Jacobsohn recently featured his WeWork water bottle, an authentic WeWork summer camp koozie, and mug in a LinkedIn post the day the news broke that the company was planning to file for bankruptcy.

Alongside the photo, he also shared advice for any of his followers that could be interested in starting a business someday.

"It's important not to scale go-to-market until you've had repeatable success with your product and/or geography expansion. Plus a high burn rate and poor financial planning can result in eventually running out of money," he wrote.

He likes to write up other lessons and thoughts on failure on the Norwest blog, where he breaks down exactly why each product or business didn't work, and what lessons a founder could take away from the story. "It does inform how I make some of my investments," he said.

And more than a few founders have reached out to him because of it, he shared. Some even offer to donate failed business swag as a way of getting in his rolodex. "It has grown my pipeline significantly," he said. "A lot of people reach out and say, 'Hey, I used to work at that company,' and will donate an item, and then tell me about their company."

While his collecting hobby certainly meshes well with his current role as a VC, he mused about returning to his alma mater, Harvard Business School, to share some of his insights. He's currently scheduled to lead a guest lecture on the subject for the class "Avoiding Startup Failure,' he mentioned.

And in the much-predicted mass extinction era for startups, it's anyone's guess as to which startup-branded item could be next on Jacobsohn's wishlist — so if you're a founder looking to connect with him, it may be wise to hold on to whatever startup relics you've got.

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