The winters in Rochester, NY can be long and harsh. I know. My son attends college there. Situated on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, the yearly snowfall averages 92 inches. But the harshness that I am referring to relates to the demise of Kodak, which was born in Rochester in 1889, and died there on January 19, 2012, falling into bankruptcy.
Given that its name was once synonymous with photography, a Kodak moment, the disintegration of this iconic corporation is particularly poignant. As recently as 1976, the company held a 90% market share of film sales and 85% of camera sales. It was the Google of its day, attracting the best technical talent from across the country. During lunch, the company played movies for its employees.
A disruptive technology—the digital camera—killed off the film business. Ironically, Steve Sasson, a 25 year-old Kodak electrical engineer, invented the first digital camera in 1975. This fact begs the question: how could a great company like Kodak, flush in the 1970’s with abundant resources and some of the most talented people on the planet, fail to take advantage of a product that was invented in its laboratories?
A failed business strategy and management myopia both contributed to Kodak’s downfall.
Kodak’s Failed Business Strategy
When there is a disruptive technology, firms are often unable to capitalize on the invention for fear of cannibalizing existing product sales. Kodak’s primary strategy was to sell high margin film. Known as the razor blade strategy, the company developed inexpensive cameras as a means to an end: their purpose was to facilitate lucrative film sales. In summary, its digital camera invention was held back because of management’s concerns about the negative impact on film sales.
When Sony launched a filmless digital camera in 1981, fear permeated Kodak’s executive suite. Specifically, over the next decade, Kodak invested approximately “$5 billion—or 45% of its R&D budget—in digital imaging,” according to a 2005 Harvard Business School case study. Unfortunately, with disruptive technologies such as digital cameras, the first-mover advantage is too great for late entrants to overcome. By the time Kodak realized that their razor-blade business model was dead, the horses were already out of the barn. The company was unable to catch-up to the competition.
Earlier this month, Kodak’s announced that it was exiting the film and digital camera business altogether. Sadly, all that remains of this once august corporation is the intellectual value of its patents, resulting from decades of belated investments in digital technologies.
Not only was the first digital camera unwieldy—it weighed over 8 lbs.—but it didn’t even save images. Instead, they were projected onto a TV screen. It is difficult to imagine how Kodak’s mainstream customers—Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Kansas—would have bought that first, clunky digital camera.
Conventional wisdom suggests that good management involves staying close to your customers. And that is what management at Kodak did. Rather than allocating resources towards the internal development of a risky, digital camera that their mainstream customers had little interest in, the company funded projects that enhanced its position within the lucrative film market. Management at Kodak was constrained by the needs of their established customers. That is fine when making incremental improvements to existing products, but it is fatal when dealing with disruptive technologies.
In retrospect, management ought to have spun off its digital camera business to an independent subsidiary. The small business unit could have focused on meeting the needs of the customers who would have embraced it, such as hobbyists and leading-edge photographers. Apple followed this strategy with its first, Apple computer. I remember buying mine from a Chicago-based, electronics shop that catered to technical enthusiasts (techies) who were far removed from the mainstream, consumer marketplace. Over time, Apple developed its product offerings, introducing features and functionality—such as the mouse and Graphical User Interface (GUI)—that made it attractive to Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Kansas.
In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen describes numerous instances where companies have failed at internally developing disruptive technologies. In contrast, firms that set up separate subsidiaries have been able to grow game-changing innovations into full-fledged businesses. HP did this with the invention of the ink jet printer in the 1980s. It set up an autonomous subsidiary in Vancouver, Washington, far removed from the influence of corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Initially, the ink jet printer market was small and limited; over time, the company turned it into a significant business.
Small is Beautiful
I worked as a product manager at a small company that manufactured food-processing machinery for the beverage industry. New product development was the key to its success. In 1980, a large conglomerate acquired it. Within 7 years, innovation, the life-blood of the firm, dried up, and the conglomerate sold off the business.
When it comes to winning the new product development race, small entrepreneurial-driven firms will usually beat the behemoth corporation, especially when dealing with disruptive technologies.