Hero image of ProSales Editor-in-Chief Craig Webb

Man’s first trip to the moon came within seconds of a crash landing. The Woodstock musical festival’s organizers marvel at the many ways they narrowly avoided mass casualties. You can’t count the number of snafus that stymied the Allied advance in World War II.

And yet the Eagle landed, Woodstock is remembered fondly, and we vanquished Hitler and Tojo. Time passes, and the boulders that jarred us and sometimes blocked our road to success fade away. Triumphs that were close calls then are remembered now as destined to be.

As for the failures, many might recall how mighty companies teetered and eventually crashed. Case in point: ProBuild in May 2015.

Today, the boo birds have their eyes on Katerra, the startup that has received billions of investment dollars based on its promise to revolutionize how we build. It’s too early to tell whether Katerra will become a game-changing construction juggernaut or a giant sinkhole for Silicon Valley money. Much of the popular press treats Katerra like the former, but complaints have emerged. A friend who knows some people who joined and then left Katerra says those ex-workers cited lack of organization and a management team that still has much to learn about construction.

The rumors of gaffes probably are true. Katerra’s giant-sized ambitions no doubt have made it clumsy, mistake-ridden, and less efficient than it claims. But committing mistakes is a painful part of becoming a winner. Rick Atkinson’s history of World War II’s European theater delves into how Dwight Eisenhower had to learn how to command and how American GIs needed many bloody lessons before they became a fighting force. In his latest letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos says that a leviathan like Amazon needs to be willing to make billion-dollar mistakes to keep growing.

Even as it stumbles, Katerra has several factors on its side. Lots of money is one, but even more important is that there is need. Labor shortages are crippling the industry. Studies suggest home construction is only a little more efficient than it was in the 1950s. The lack of affordable housing has reached crisis levels, as has concerns about sick buildings. In short, we need to learn how to build faster, cheaper, and better, and none of these problems are going away soon. Those continuing needs will provide impetus for Katerra and other innovators to keep stumbling toward solutions.

Battlefield histories are replete with tales about how one side lost, despite having a better plan, because the opposition had luck or timing on its side. Looking back, ProBuild failed not because it spent so much on poorly performing IT and not because of heavy-handed control by its investors. Those problems ultimately could have been worked out. No, ProBuild failed mainly because new-home construction plunged 75% during the Great Recession. Had the downturn been shallow rather than steep, you might still see the ProBuild logo across the country, given the advantages it could marshal.

One recent trend in football is the increased number of plays where teammates join to push the ball carrier through the defense and over the goal line. There’s not much elegance to employing brute strength, but it works, particularly when the ball carrier was about to go down. Katerra’s running backs might stumble from time to time, and its game plan might need tinkering, but when you have a massive lineup on your side, you can still win in the end.