My first real corporate job was with a Fortune 20 firm: a remarkable innovator that a century earlier had invented a game-changing technology. It dominated the new sector it created and plied innovation upon innovation — until it innovated itself into bankruptcy.
My employer was Eastman Kodak. The Kodak unit where I worked sold microfilm, high-speed copiers, and related equipment and services.
The company had a brilliant model that served it well for more than 100 years: “Manufacture a unit for 25 cents and sell it for five dollars,” as my boss would say.
When I approached Kodak, I lacked the MBA usually required for a non-technical employee. But I had one skill it sorely needed, and I soon found myself a newly minted Grade 41 Planning Specialist.
I quickly learned that inventors of game-changing technologies — such as photographic film — face an inescapable plight: They start with 100% of the market and can only lose share thereafter.
In the late 1980s, Kodak was still strong, but our share position was deteriorating fast. We had to innovate even more than ever.
And innovate we did.
The shelves of our R&D laboratories groaned with innovations: digital cameras and capture devices, robotic microfilm loaders, high-speed scanning algorithms, super-robust paper transports — and much, much more.
Yet innovation eventually drove Kodak into bankruptcy — for two reasons.
First, we failed to design and test compelling new business models for our innovations. Our inventions, stunning as they were, were too often solutions to technological challenges rather than real problems with which customers were struggling.
Innovation is wonderful and essential. But by itself, innovation creates nothing. Only when harnessed to a business model — the logic by which value is created for customers — can innovation make an enterprise soar.
Second, as documented in books by James Abegglen, Rita McGrath, and others, even as we innovated, we failed to come to grips with sweeping, irreversible trends — particularly the digitization of imagery by both consumer and business customers.
For example, even though a Kodak engineer developed the world’s first digital camera, we were unable to pair this amazing technological innovation with equally compelling commercial innovation.
I remember well Kodak management’s incontrovertibly logical defense of film’s advantages over digital media: Film was human-readable. Film was a truly archival medium (it could easily last 1,000 years). Film’s resolution was unsurpassed. And film was acceptable evidence in courts of law. Digital media utterly failed all these tests.
My, how times change.
I left Kodak after three years and would love to claim that quitting my job was prompted by prescience regarding the digital revolution. But I’d simply grown to thoroughly disbelieve in “planning” and felt I could no longer contribute. The departure of one overpaid Grade 41 Planning Specialist briefly improved the company’s financial position — but that was hardly enough to stem the digital tide. Today, other great technological innovators such as Xerox and Intel face the same challenge Kodak did.
Years have passed since I thought about my former employer, which recently emerged from bankruptcy. But the other day I was delighted to learn that a startup I’ve supported for the past year has formed a new partnership with Kodak. I hope the two succeed in blending business model innovation with technological innovation.