Automotive pioneer Henry Ford is famously credited with saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Of course, we all know that Ford didn’t deliver faster horses – he innovated an automobile that middle class Americans could afford. In some ways, he helped define the American middle class itself.
Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he did introduce totally disruptive innovations. He created the first affordable automobile. For the first time, automobiles didn’t have to be a novelty for the ultra-wealthy – they could be mainstream. Ford also innovated a franchise system, so that his affordable automobiles could be purchased nationwide. And, Henry Ford paid his workers well, a practice that was a catalyst for growing the middle class in this country. Ultimately, it was this growing middle class that drove demand for Ford’s vehicles.
Any one of these innovations would have been disruptive. Taken together, they created a revolution that changed the United States (and the world) forever. If you rode in a car today, if you had mail or a package delivered today, or if you ate food that you bought at a grocery store, then you’ve benefited from Henry Ford’s disruptive innovations more than a century later.
So, this is a nice little history story, but what does it have to do with startups and inventors?
It would be hard to imagine one of the established, luxury automobile companies (which had been selling automobiles as rare, expensive, novelties) to suddenly shift gears (no pun intended) and create cars for the common man. Instead, it took a totally new approach – a new kind of a company, and a fresh start. In other words, it took a startup with startup thinking. Henry Ford’s revolutionary thinking was outside the box, it went against the grain – and it paid off. By 1918, half of all automobiles sold in the United States were Model T Fords.
We’ve seen this type of disruptive, startup thinking launch revolutions more recently as well.
Bill Gates revolutionized the computing world. He launched Windows, which made home computers dramatically friendlier and more usable for average people. This idea created a revolution. It should be noted that something very similar to Windows had actually been invented by the much larger Xerox corporation – but they didn’t launch it because Xerox just wasn’t equipped with ‘startup thinking’ – the new technology just wasn’t a faster horse (higher capacity copier, faster copier, etcetera), so it wasn’t immediately clear how it would actually benefit Xerox’s established business model. Today, Microsoft has a market cap approximately 65 times as large as Xerox’s market cap. Imagine where Xerox might be if they had launched Windows?
If you’re like most Americans, you’ve received a package from Amazon in the last week or two. You’re experiencing another disruptive innovation that has evolved into a revolution – this revolution will change the retail landscape (literally) in ways we can’t even fully comprehend yet. In the space of a few years, Amazon went from a startup selling books on the internet (and largely ignored by most people) to become the largest retailer in the history of commerce. Amazon is worth more than the next eight retailers combined. Note, I didn’t say larger than the next eight online retailers combined… I’m talking about Walmart, Best Buy, Macy’s, Target, JCPenny, Nordstrom, Kohls, and Sears.
Again, what’s this all got to do with inventors and startups?
Inventors and startups are uniquely positioned to create disruptive and evolutionary new businesses. They are not constrained by an established (even a successful) business model. This lack of constraint allows inventors and startups to find opportunities that more established organizations may miss.
Ford, Amazon and Microsoft are certainly titanic examples of disruptive business models, but inventors and startups can experience significant success even at much smaller scales. So long as the new invention fills an unmet need, OR fills a met need in a better way, there is an opportunity for a successful business.
My company, Product QuickStart, focuses on the needs of inventors, entrepreneurs, startups, and early stage companies. If you are interested in developing a product, or if you need help with a product you already have, we would love to talk to you. Please visit our website at www.productquickstart.com, or give us a call at 844.757.8278.
Principal, Product QuickStart