Chances are that you’ve made a mistake at your job before, but has it ever cost the company millions of dollars and years of work? At most jobs, a simple typo might cost you some time and a bit of embarrassment. However, some businesses and private individuals have made mistakes that ended up costing them millions — or even billions — of dollars.
Because of the cost, you might think that these are massive blunders, but most were actions as minor as leaving off a hyphen, failing to think ahead, or forgetting the date.
Sometimes a design works better on paper than it does in real life. The “Walkie Talkie” skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street in London uses one of those designs. The Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group designed the building with appealing, unique curved windows and sloping walls. But these features have an unfortunate side effect: redirecting and focusing sunlight.
Visitors walking near the building complained that the street became significantly hotter when construction on it was complete. It even managed to melt one man’s Jaguar, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Nearby businesses forced the group to install expensive sunshades and pay for repairs as the building had led to carpets and storefronts catching fire.
Employees at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, California, had the task of moving the NOAA-N Prime Satellite in 2003. Unfortunately, an employee failed to secure the machine with bolts, causing it to crash to the floor.
Lockheed swore to donate profits to cover the cost in addition to paying an additional $30 million. The U.S. government stepped in and covered the rest of the bill.
Many people consider George Lucas to be a genius filmmaker, but maybe he doesn’t have quite the same mind for business. He sold the legendary “Star Wars” franchise to Disney in 2013 for a staggering $4 billion. However, he also gave up all merchandising rights.
Disney easily recouped their expenses thanks to the sequel series bringing in over $4.8 billion at the box office. Beyond this, they made well over $3 billion in merch sales following the release of the sequels. With numerous shows on the horizon and the addition of beloved characters like Grogu — Baby Yoda to most people — it seems like Lucas lost out on a lot of income.
Another example of a design that simply doesn’t work in practical situations is the Millennium Bridge, also in London. The city chose to construct a unique memory bridge over the River Thames to celebrate the new millennium in the year 2000.
However, designers and engineers failed to realize just how many people would walk over the bridge at the same time. The large number of pedestrians caused the bridge to sway and wobble back and forth. The city closed the bridge just a few hours after its inaugural opening and paid over $7 million to improve its functionality.
A common saying is that you should measure twice and cut once. French rail operator SNCF took on a massive transportation project in 2014, which required them to construct 2000 new trains at the cost of $20.5 billion.
However, after constructing the trains, the company learned that the vehicles couldn’t fit in the stations. The rail operator, RFF, had given them the wrong dimensions for the platforms. Older stations and platforms were smaller, but RFF didn’t consider the differences. The estimated damage was valued at $68 million.
In 2018, a maintenance worker in Belgium’s Florennes Air Force Base had probably the worst day an employee could have. The worker was performing maintenance on an F-16 and accidentally fired its Vulcan rotary cannon, setting fire to and destroying another fighter jet.
The resulting explosion also damaged the jet responsible for firing, costing the Belgian Air Force a total of $18 million.
There’s little doubt that one of the biggest missteps in recent business history is Blockbuster passing on the opportunity to obtain Netflix. In the early 2000s, Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings attempted to forge two deals with Blockbuster’s CEO, John Antioco. The first deal was to outright purchase Netflix for only $50 million. The other was for Netflix to run Blockbuster’s online division while Blockbuster ran Netflix’s brand in stores.
Barry McCarthy, Netflix’s former chief financial officer stated, “They thought we were a very small niche business.” Blockbuster is now defunct, while Netflix is worth over $25 billion.
Perhaps the most famous of the more recent incidents on this list, the Deepwater Horizon disaster continues to affect the world to this day. The Deepwater Horizon was a massive drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico that exploded on April 20, 2010, resulting in a truly catastrophic oil spill. Fires burned for days after the incident.
BP paid $65 billion in penalties and other expenses aimed at improving the now tainted region. Transocean paid $1.4 billion due to violating the U.S. Clean Water Act. Of course, this incident had a massive financial toll, but its impact on the environment is arguably even more immense.
Unless you haven’t been on the internet in a decade, you’ve probably seen the now-famous portrait of Jesus. In 2012, 82-year-old Cecilia Gimenez volunteered to restore Elias Garcia Martinez’s priceless painting, “Ecce Homo.” Her efforts resulted in a smudged painting that barely has a passing resemblance to the original work.
She claims to have known how to restore the painting, but the paints ran.
The Titanic may have been an engineering marvel, but it was a failure by almost every other metric. White Star Line sent the legendary vessel on its maiden voyage in 1912, claiming the Titanic was “unsinkable.” The ship was as much an advertising venture as it was a luxury liner, as White Star Line was choosing to compete against other companies with the big boat's sheer size.
Poor training, desires to best other companies, and low-quality materials contributed to the devastating loss of many lives. The ship itself cost $1.5 million at the time, which is over $150 million today. Many of the victims and their families sued the company for a significant amount, though White Star settled for $664,000 (about $17 million today). Beyond these losses, the sinking of the Titanic affected the travel industry as a whole and forced the retirement of dozens of active ships.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of checking all measurements, especially when working on a $3 billion task. In 2013, the Spanish government designed four state-of-the-art submarines, the first of which was the $680 million S-81 Isaac Peral.
Unfortunately, after constructing the sub, they realized that it was 75 to 100 tons overweight. This resulted in the submarine being incapable of surfacing once it was underwater. To solve the issue, the engineers brought in American experts, who suggested increasing the length of the ship. However, they failed to consider the size of the port, so the sub could not dock. This required another expense to enlarge and dredge the port.
When filming “The Hateful Eight,” Quentin Tarantino was, as always, insistent on getting the perfect look for every prop, which included using a 145-year-old guitar. The museum that provided the guitar had insured it for $40,000, but similar guitars from the same museum have sold at auction for up to $500,000.
In the script, Kurt Russell grabs a guitar from Jennifer Jason Leigh and smashes it against a post. Under normal circumstances, they would have stopped filming and replaced the guitar with a replica. Russell, unaware of the guitar’s value, continued the scene without stopping and smashed the priceless guitar. Because of the incident, the museum now refuses to loan guitars to any other film productions.
When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak first launched Apple, they weren’t alone. A third founder, Ronald Wayne, played a key role in helping the company get off its feet in the 1970s and was even responsible for designing the original logo. However, he had many disagreements with Jobs and chose to leave the company, selling his stock. In 1978, he made $800 selling his 10% share in Apple and accepted $1,500 a year later to forfeit any future claims.
According to modern pricing, his 10% share of Apple would now be worth over $95 billion. Additionally, Wayne eventually sold the original Apple contract for $500. The contract later sold at auction for $1.59 million. Wayne says he doesn’t regret walking away from Apple, but he does regret selling the contract.
In one of the biggest business blunders of all time, vacuum manufacturer Hoover’s UK branch once offered two free round-trip flights to New York or Orlando with every £100 purchase. Over 300,000 people capitalized on the promotion.
Hoover Europe’s former parent company, Maytag Corp., paid a total of $72 million on flights for 220,000 people over the years. Many customers never received their tickets.
Government mishaps resulting in massive spending and monetary losses aren’t new and they will probably never end, though one stands out as being particularly egregious. When serving as the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie and his administration caused the state to miss out on over $400 million due to improperly submitting an application for the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” grant.
Christie originally blamed the national government, but it was later revealed that one of his administrators put the wrong date on the application. A simple oversight caused schools across the state to miss out on critically-needed funds.
NASA proved the importance of double-checking your work when a minor mistake cost them around $18.5 million in the 60s, approximately $160 million in today’s dollars.
NASA had plans to launch the country’s first interplanetary probe, Mariner 1, in 1962. Unfortunately, the launch was plagued with issues, and the ship gradually went off course until a safety officer told it to self-destruct.
When reviewing what caused the issue, engineers noticed that the hand-written guidance equations contained the symbol “R” for radius. This “R” should have had a small line over it, signifying smoothing or averaging of the data coming from a previous calculation. Without the bar, the guidance computer program that used these notes as a basis was flawed. A simple missing line cost NASA millions of dollars.
A Roswell, New Mexico, car dealership wanted to stimulate sluggish sales by mailing out scratch tickets, one of which would reward $1,000. However, in a twist straight out of “The Office,” the company responsible for printing the tickets, Force Events Direct Marketing, accidentally made every single ticket a winner for a total payout of $50 million.
The dealership was unable to honor the winnings and instead offered a $5 Walmart gift card for every winning ticket.
If there was ever an argument for standardizing measurement systems, it’s the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999. While the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the Imperial system, the Lockheed Martin division used the metric system.
The two systems were incompatible, of course, leading to the destruction of the orbiter. Such a simple mistake cost NASA $125 million.
With the dramatic increase in the value of bitcoin, many people have shared stories of using what is now thousands of dollars in bitcoin to pay for pizza or other simple goods. However, one of the biggest losses belongs to James Howells.
He started with 7,500 bitcoins and kept them secure for several years. To access these funds, he needed to use a digital key that he had stored on a separate hard drive. When bitcoin’s worth exploded and he went to cash in, he realized that he had accidentally thrown away the hard drive and could no longer use his massive fortune. Those bitcoins are now worth nearly $400 million.
In 2005, Japan’s Mizuho Securities added a new portfolio, J-Com Co., to its stock offerings at 610,00 yen per stock. However, a year later, a company trader accidentally listed stocks at 610,000 shares for a single yen each. This led to the stock’s price tanking and resulted in the launch of a massive investigation.
The company bought back the majority of the shares and restored the original price. However, the whole debacle cost them $225 million and a significant loss of trust.