Did you think Thomas Edison was a great inventor? He wasn't.
Our Guest Bloggers, Peter P. Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa, are the co-founders of Atomica Creative. Atomica Creative is a strategic product marketing company that has been involved in many successful product launches in North America and Asia in several industries. Roosen and Nakagawa have recently released a book titled "Overcoming Inventoritis - Lessons from Thomas Edison, the world's greatest product marketer". They have some valuable advice that they wanted to share with readers of AmericanInventorSpot.com.
Here's their article:
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There are many stories of inventors who ended up broke, even if their inventions were first class world-beaters.
Perhaps the best known one is Nikola Tesla who invented AC (Alternating Current) electrical systems and technology which is widely used throughout the world today. He was in direct competition with Thomas Edison's DC (Direct Current) technology. Tesla had the apparently superior technology for most electrical power applications but Edison's technology held the market for some time even after George Westinghouse, inventor of the railway air brake system still in use today, backed Tesla. Edison actively resisted changing from his established DC to the superior AC technology but eventually did make the wholesale change as the market dictated. Unlike Edison, Tesla died in relative obscurity as a broke, lonely and unhappy man. When Edison died, the President asked everyone in the country to dim their lights for a minute of remembrance, a practice that was widely observed.
What led to these two prominent individuals to such vastly different outcomes? Tesla is the poster boy for inventoritis, arguably being a greater inventor and scientist than Edison while self-educated Edison was free of it and still has the reputation as being the World's Greatest Inventor.
Almost everything ever written about Edison and Menlo Park over the past hundred years centers around the idea that he was a great inventor, the greatest in world history and that Menlo Park was in effect a factory producing an endless series of great inventions. This has been commonly associated with producing excellent products. The light bulb is the most popular example of the successful Edison products from among his thousand issued patents. Much has also been made of his claim that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and of how he and his staff sometimes toiled through thousands of repetitive experiments in the process of developing his ideas into useful commercial products.
Although he did make some great inventions, most of his patents were for refinements and improvements of existing ideas and products.
What these writers missed was that Edison was not so much an inventor as a great product marketer. His image as an inventor was part of his carefully cultivated and controlled public relations and media strategy. He was opportunistic and extremely media savvy. He had a special office set up at Menlo Park and carefully designed the entire operation from a media perspective such that he was able to brand himself as the world's greatest inventor. He did not invent the light bulb. He improved upon existing technology after having bought out other patent rights and where competing patent rights were not so easily obtained, stole technology by directly infringing upon those claims. Edison used Menlo Park as a means to his marketing ends.
Maintaining Menlo Park was an expensive undertaking and it took in work from various companies, not only Edison's, to justify its existence and to cover the costs. For larger projects with a high Research &Development component such as developing cement manufacturing technologies and operations, Edison moved out into the plant locations and scaled down his Menlo Park operation.
Development and testing activities have been modeled on Edison's Menlo Park example and on the premise that by establishing systems and processes toward the objective of coming up with winning products through technical research and development activities, the company would gain a competitive advantage. Vast amounts of money are spent in this area and many companies still pride themselves on the money they spend each year on these activities, usually expressed as a percentage of sales, typically in the 1 to 15% range. An endless series of winning products is not the normal result. A 2005 Booz Allen Hamilton study of the global top 1000 R&D spenders found no direct correlation between R&D spending and sales growth, operating profit or shareholder return.
Many of the world's scientists and engineers are currently employed in these numerous industrial R&D centers, with the larger ones employing thousands. These modern invention factories often reside far away from where the sales and marketing people are located or where the manufacturing operations churn out the product lines. The facilities are usually located in quiet, secluded places with spacious parking lots, plenty of green spaces, vegetation and aesthetically pleasing water features. The people who work in them often take comfort in the idea they are working in a temple of ideas, away from the marketing and sales bustle, manufacturing smokestacks and general "business" end of the company.
Few of the R&D people truly understand or even care about the marketing strategy of the company, and you would have a hard time finding any of them actively engaged in developing or deploying the strategy. Company upper managements generally assume these centers which form a standard part of the industrial landscape are serving the corporate best interests and accept their high costs as one of the required costs of doing business,. These comfortable techie friendly places might look like a natural outgrowth of Edison's Menlo Park but upon closer examination have little resemblance to what his facility was really about; to serve his clearly defined marketing objectives.
Edison knew enough to close his Menlo Park shop when it no longer served his corporate purposes. While Edison was still very much active and alive, his protégé Henry Ford carefully dismantled and moved the Menlo Park complex, including a trainload of the New Jersey soil upon which it originally stood, to Dearborn Michigan where it stands today. It was made part of Henry Ford's historical Greenfield Village and is currently open for public viewing at the cost of admission. A century later, it still serves the original marketing purpose of developing and protecting Edison's brand as the World's Greatest Inventor.
"Genius is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration. As a result, a genius is often a talented person who has simply done all of his homework." This is Edison's most famous quote. Historians and journalists have almost invariably held this in the context of his laboratory work but that is a misguided approach. A large part of his efforts were outside of the scientific areas in doing the product marketing work. He never lost his focus on doing his homework to understand the market, and the players within it including the customers, suppliers, competitors, the financial and business aspects, and certainly the sales and marketing requirements. He worked out effective strategies and executed them. He branded himself by making his name synonymous with the term "inventor" to the exclusion of others so effectively that today, a hundred years later, the connection still holds firmly. His work ethic is legendary but one should remember he almost always had several people helping him in the work. When it was likely to take numerous, sometimes thousands of attempts to get to a satisfactory result on one of his objectives, he would employ an efficient assembly line approach to the task. Tesla while working for Edison once described Edison's lab methodology as an "empirical dragnet." The perspiration was not only Edison's but shared among a number of dedicated workers including Tesla.
Tesla got himself in some difficulties as he aged. After some breathtaking early successes, he alienated himself from the marketplace and all the people in it. He died a broke, paranoid, miserable, lonely man who in his last years was holed up in the Hotel New Yorker having dialogues with a flock of pigeons he had enticed into his room. Just prior to that, he was finding his way onto America's newspapers, not with reports of new commercial successes, but with his ideas and designs for communication with other planets, wireless global electrical energy and to support his black philosophy of war including death rays and a machine that could literally split the earth.
Edison died surrounded by family and friends as a member of "The Millionaires Club" along with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone (founder of the Firestone tire & Rubber Co.). He leaves behind a legacy of large utility "Edison" companies and was a founder of modern General Electric currently the world's 7th largest company. He had a very satisfying life and is remembered as the World's Greatest Inventor.
So what was the main difference? Edison was the World's Greatest Marketer!
Peter P. Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa