Lessons from Menlo Park

Inventors aren’t automatically entrepreneurs. Because great ideas don’t automatically become great businesses. Mike looks at an inventor who did achieve fame and fortune – not least by relying on some talented help: Thomas Alva Edison.

We’re often accused of being excessively critical of inventors. This is unfair, though we do get bored by people who resolutely refuse to leave their potting shed and expect the world to discover them by magic. The greatest inventors have not been like this, and share at least some of the traits of our ideal ‘Beermat Entrepreneur’.

Take Thomas Alva Edison for example. A myth has grown up around him, of a lone, unconventional genius, working late into the night to produce great inventions from nothing. There must be something in the American mindset that requires this stereotype, as the reality is very different.

For starters, he was a team man. This is not to say he was a team player – he has been described as an ‘uninhibited egoist’, and there was only one boss at Menlo Park, his famous laboratory. But he knew that in order to succeed, he had to build and motivate teams of people around him. Which he did, brilliantly.

Like the Beermat Entrepreneur, he built two kinds of team, cornerstones and Dream Team. His cornerstones were a British draftsman, Charles Batchelor, and a Swiss machinist, John Kruesi. Batchelor was a ‘completer’ by nature, who forced Edison to work through the minutiae of his ideas (and to abandon some of the crazier ones). In the best ‘Beermat’ tradition, Edison split many of his royalties 50/50 with Batchelor. Kruesi turned Edison’s and Batchelor’s models into working prototypes – he was the classic delivery cornerstone.

One mistake Edison made was not to appoint a finance cornerstone. Menlo Park was only built because he had to leave premises in the middle of Newark thanks to financial difficulties. Later in life, he sold most of his General Electric stock to finance an unsuccessful venture, a venture that a proper finance cornerstone would, if not cancelled, at least have prevented from consuming resources at such a damaging rate.

Behind his team of cornerstones was a second team, the other researchers at Menlo. This was a classic Beermat ‘Dream Team’ – young people who worked not for money but for challenge and camaraderie. We recommend motivating the Dream Team by, amongst other things, regular pub evenings. Edison disagreed: why go out to the pub? Instead, an organ, the nearest the late 19th century could get to a juke box, was set up at one end of the Menlo lab and the young engineers encouraged to work late, then to relax on site with pipes and a sing-along. The lads, incidentally, were known as ‘muckers’, a perfect term with its overtones of getting hands dirty but doing so communally.

Teamwork also involves forming strategic alliances with the right people, and Edison was a master of this. Essential to the success of the Model T Ford was its reliable battery – developed, of course, by Edison. When raising money for projects, he established connections with the great financial brains of the time, JP Morgan and Vanderbilt. Within the organization, he knew when to bring in outside experts such as the physicist Tesla. Great entrepreneurs are expert networkers.

In best Beermat style, Edison had a sharp eye for ‘pain’ in the world around him. His inventiveness was always with an end in mind – to produce technology that would benefit large numbers of people. He was also no stranger to hard work: in the tradition of all great entrepreneurs, he had enormous tenacity. Many of his ideas took years to turn from inventions to effective mass-market products, but Edison and his muckers kept working on them. Apparently he tried 6,000 media for lightbulb filaments before hitting on the right one – carbonized bamboo.

And, of course, he did not invent out of the blue. He did discover interesting things – the phonograph was the result of one such piece of luck – but he mainly worked with existing technologies, trying to extend or ‘recombine’ them to tackle new problems. The lightbulb has become the symbol of the sudden ‘eureka!’ idea – but Edison’s bulb was not created in this way. Inefficient, expensive electric lighting had been around for twenty years before Edison ‘invented’ his. His famous quote, that genius is ‘one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration’ should be recalled whenever the lightbulb metaphor is trotted out – especially if by people trying to promote the cult of their own lightning-like brilliance as innovators.

Like all born entrepreneurs, this splendid man never retired, working into his eighties on new ideas.

All of this makes Thomas Alva Edison an excellent model for the modern entrepreneur, both via the myriad things he got right, and to learn from the few mistakes he made (largely financial). The real Edison, we mean, not the mythical figure created by the media.


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