Learning the Wrong Lessons from Famous Innovators

Henry Ford went bankrupt in his first attempt to create the automobile. Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times in his quest to create a light bulb. Steve Jobs suffered an embarrassing and very public ouster from the company he founded. These men risked their reputations and their wealth in pursuit of big visions. If you think I am gearing you up for a pep talk, think again.

People love to quote the likes of Ford, Jobs, Edison and others, but how many are willing to make similar sacrifices? Some entrepreneurs rely on the magic bag of quotes to justify pursuing untested, bad ideas. But ask yourself this question: Would you risk going bankrupt or losing your home? The usual response is silence and a blank stare. If you are not prepared to take such risks, then stop blindly quoting those who did.

Edison, Ford and Jobs

Here is a favorite Ford quote of those who consider customer feedback as some sort of entrepreneurial sin:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Yet, Ford’s first bankruptcy was due to his unwillingness to engage the market. He spent all of his time on the engineering and mechanics of his invention, a costly oversight. So, Ford tried again and failed. It was the third attempt, The Ford Motor Company, which finally broke through with the help of investors who swooped in at the last moment to save the company.

What people really wanted was to go faster, not to have faster horses. A seasoned salesperson or marketer faced with the same question would reply, “Well, a horse can only go so fast, correct? What if there was a way you could go faster than any horse that ever lived? Would that be useful?” Who would have said no to this? So, what is the real lesson here?

Steve Jobs famously said, “…We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.” Remember the Newton? How about MobileMe? Jobs described it as “Exchange for the rest us.” He would later call the MobileMe development team into his office for a stinging rebuke, suggesting in part they should “…hate each other for letting each other down.” Ouch. Apple can afford to take risky bets. Can you?

Thomas Edison is arguably the most successful of the three if we consider the number and widespread impact of his innovations. His most famous quote is the result of his failures with the light bulb:

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Another favorite from the magic bag of quotes. The lesson? Never give up! Not quite.

However, Edison was more than an inventor. He was a shrewd businessman. Consider the following quote:

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

To those who balk at understanding the market, consider this Edison quote:

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others. I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.”

Given the choice to be under the tutelage of these three men, which would you choose? I pick Edison but even in the case of Ford and Jobs, there is far more to them than random quotes suggest.

Bodies of Work, Not Isolated Quotes

Entrepreneurs as well as the public would do well to understand the complete body of work of innovators in order to extract the correct lessons. Yes, Thomas Edison was persistent and focused, but he was also a man of strategy who understood the importance of feedback and data. Ford gave us the automobile, but his real innovation was the perfection of the assembly line, which took planning, foresight and a team of brilliant people. As for those who still believe Apple does not conduct market research, you should read this article from the Wall Street Journal.

New entrepreneurs risk mistaking insanity for persistence by taking quotes out of context. Instead, spend time studying the biographies of innovators to understand what worked for them and what did not. The real lesson of Edison and others is to work smarter, not harder.

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.

Derrick Jones
Derrick Jones is a former Marine, serial entrepreneur of three tech start-ups and author of "Presidents, Pilots & Entrepreneurs - Lessons from the Trenches for the Everyday Entrepreneur." In his book, he chronicles what he calls the good, the bad and the ugly of entrepreneurship with key lessons for beginning entrepreneurs. He is a regular speaker at schools and trade organization on the subjects of entrepreneurship, leadership and technology. He mentors aspiring entrepreneurs on his own time and through his volunteer work with SCORE. He also shares his experiences on his blog www.PresidentsPilotsEntrepreneurs.com.

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