Sometimes it helps to be mad. Most great ideas have been laughed at. And, truth to tell, sometimes inventors become a little carried away at the possibilities – Jacob Schick, inventor of the electric razor, believed that by shaving correctly every day, a man could live to 120. He was wrong, but he was right about the market possibilities of an electric razor.
The second truism associated with bright business ideas is that you make your own luck. In 1979 a Hewlett-Packard engineer found that by heating metal in a specific way, it splattered all over. The decision to exploit this launched the ink jet printer business – ten years later, this decision became the basis for over $6 billion in H-P revenues.
Or look at the rise of the Mark McCormack business empire. This can be traced back to the decision by Arnold Palmer to allow the golf enthusiast and lawyer, McCormack, to organize a few exhibitions for him. Palmer’s lucrative rise to legendary status was ignited by McCormack whose International Management Group (founded in 1962) created the business of sport.
Or look at the creation of the credit card. In 1950 Frank McNamara found himself in a restaurant with no money and came up with the idea of the Diners Club Card. The credit card changed buying and selling throughout the world.
Conclusion? Luck may come your way, but you still have to convert it into business reality. The reality is that innovation and bright ideas often take time.
In the 1930s a young woman called Helen Maislen was a physics student at Smith College in Boston. She met another physics student from Norwich College, Edwin Land, and they married. Land later went to Harvard but then he became obsessed with the phenomenon of polarization.
In 1937, Land established a company which made a polarizing plastic. He gave it the name Polaroid – his wife’s professor had actually used the term first. The business took off. Then, in 1943, Land found himself with his family in Santa Fe enjoying a vacation. He took photographs of his family like any doting father. His three-year old daughter bemoaned the fact that they had to wait so long to see the photographs developed.
The idea of combining the polarization technology with developing films struck a chord in Land’s fertile imagination. There was something in it. He decided to take a walk. Along the way, as he padded the streets of Santa Fe, Land developed the concept of the Polaroid Camera. (Calling time out is not something restricted to sports arenas. Business people could learn a few lessons. When the heat is on, a time-out can work wonders. Take a walk. Sip on a coffee. Stare into the distance. Land knew the value of thinking and made the space to think.)
Turning it into reality proved a little harder. By 1950, Land had a system which produced black-and-white images. It took until 1959 for him to develop a color version. It eventually reached the market in 1963.
The Polaroid camera took off. By the late 1960s, it was calculated that half of American households had a Polaroid camera of some sort. Land decided that there was a solution and he worked until he found it. “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess,” he said – and he did. Altogether he amassed over 530 patents.
Bright ideas can take time to evolve into businesses. Often the key question is how long are you prepared to stick with it. Stick or bust?
Stuart Crainer, 75 Greatest Management Decisions, AMACOM, 1999
This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).