“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously observed. This remains one of the most quoted—and insightful—observations ever made on the subject. It is testimony to his special place in the pantheon of innovation, too, that the light bulb that he invented has become synonymous with new ideas and innovation.
Lesson 1: Innovation begets innovation
To understand innovation, Edison’s own life is instructive. His observation about the effort required to turn ideas into innovations was also the maxim by which he lived. By the end of his extraordinary career, Edison had accumulated 1,093 U.S. and 1,300 foreign patents. The inventor of the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb also found time to start up or control 13 major companies. His endeavors directly or indirectly led to the creation of several well-known corporations, including General Electric and RCA. Consolidated Edison is still listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Edison proved that ideas breed – if you let them. The most innovative people are restlessly and continually creative as they know that ideas feed off each other.
Lesson 2: Innovation needs support
In New York Edison formed his first partnership with Frank L. Pope, a noted telegraphic engineer, to exploit their inventions. The partnership was subsequently absorbed by Gold & Stock, a company controlled by Marshall Lefferts, former president of the American Telegraph Company, who paid $20,000 to the two partners for the privilege. Recognizing Edison’s ingenuity, Lefferts conducted a side deal with him, securing Edison’s independent patents for the then princely sum of $30,000.
Investing in genius can give it the space to grow and succeed.
Lesson 3: Bold aims pay off
The 1870s were the most creative period of Edison’s life. Needing to expand his operation, he moved into buildings in Menlo Park, a town 24 miles from New York on the New York and Philadelphia Railroad. The name Menlo Park has become synonymous with innovation. It was there that Edison and his team perfected the phonograph. The patents were filed in December 1877, but Edison barely paused to draw breath. He began to experiment with incandescent filaments and glass bulbs. While he was still some way off from developing what would become the light bulb, Edison managed to persuade a consortium that he could produce a commercially viable lighting system based on such a product. As a result, he signed a rights and remuneration agreement that laid the foundation for the Edison Electric Light Company.
In reality, Edison was far from developing such a product. Time passed, with Edison continuing to make favorable noises about progress, although he was actually making little headway in the lab. Feeling the pressure, at one point he retired to an under-stairs cupboard, took a dose of morphine, and slept for 36 hours.
It was on Wednesday, November 12, 1879, that Edison finally produced a bulb that remained lighted long enough to be considered of commercial value. It lasted for 40 hours and 20 minutes, and within two months, he had extended its longevity to 600 hours. Visitors trekked to Menlo Park to gaze in wonder at the lights that lit the roadway. Sadly, what followed for Edison was not the triumph of his invention but a period of protracted patent litigation that lasted more than 10 years.
Even so, the lesson is clear: aim high. Time and time again we have encountered entrepreneurs who repeatedly told clients they could do something when they have never tried it before. They have the confidence that they can do it even without a proven track record. They get the work because they have the chutzpah as much as for any business brilliance. Boldness pays.
Lesson 4: Innovate then commercialize
A great idea leads to a genuine innovation only if it can be commercialized. Undoubtedly, a large part of Edison’s genius lay in his realization that innovation alone was insufficient for commercial success. Edison focused on creating commercially viable products. To do so, he assembled a team of brilliant minds at Menlo Park. In effect, he created the first product research lab—a forerunner of facilities such as the celebrated Xerox PARC at Palo Alto, California. It was a practical and commercial approach to invention that proved to be immensely successful.
While it seems obvious that innovation without commercialization is a rather empty experience, it is worth noting that there are many, many innovations that fail to be commercialized or that are commercialized, but not by their creator. In their book Fast Second, Costas Markides and Paul Geroski developed this theme, pointing out that the originators of innovations as diverse as the jet engine, the typewriter, the pneumatic tire, and the magnetic tape recorder were not the people who eventually led these creations to mass commercialization. “The individuals or companies that create radically new markets are not necessarily the ones that scale them up into big mass markets,” observed Markides and Geroski. “Indeed, the evidence shows that in the majority of cases, the early pioneers of radically new markets are almost never the ones that scale up and conquer those markets.”
Being innovative also includes the ability to take an idea and to bring it out into the world to make money from it.
Lesson 5: Innovation is a team game
Innovation the Edison way provided the blueprint for the twentieth-century corporation. Innovation was neatly corralled under the umbrella of R&D. Groups of R&D technicians and scientists—geeks, we would call them today—worked on innovation and then passed the fruits of their labors on to the rest of the organization.
Tim Brown of the design company IDEO offers this take on Edison’s contribution to our approach to innovation: “Edison wasn’t a narrowly specialized scientist but a broad generalist with a shrewd business sense. In his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory he surrounded himself with gifted tinkerers, improvisers, and experimenters. Indeed, he broke the mold of the ‘lone genius inventor’ by creating a team-based approach to innovation.”
Armed with the bright ideas that came out of the R&D lab, the company’s job was then to commercialize the innovations on as large a scale as possible. At the time, this worked. Once a company had created an innovative product or service, it could build a large-scale operation to commercialize it. And it could build on a large scale, knowing that its advantage would last. For a large part of the twentieth century, a company that had a superior product or service could expect its advantage to last for years, even decades. Indeed, the primary purpose and rationale for large companies was to capitalize on their competitive advantage by leveraging economies of scale to drive costs down, and to defend their competitive advantage so that they could maintain a high price premium. The success of these large organizations was predicated not on their ability to innovate, but on their ability to earn higher profits through the efficiencies that flowed from economies of scale.
Mass production democratized many of the innovations that were being introduced, but it also had one unfortunate side effect: it made innovation more difficult. With scale came efficiency, but it also made it harder for companies to experiment and innovate. Today, these shackles have been removed. Turn on the lights!
Thomas Martin and Frank Lewis Dyer, Edison, His Life and Inventions, Andesite Press, 2015
This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).